ERAU Eagles advance to CalPac championship

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Digging themselves out of an early 2-0 hole, the Embry-Riddle volleyball team advanced to the California Pacific Conference Championships title match with a 3-2 tournament semifinals victory over Simpson University (Calif.) on Thursday night.

Jalin Yoder had 21 kills and eight digs, Becca Long chipped in with 28 assists and the Eagles have won seven of their last eight matches.

Embry-Riddle's last loss came at the hands of Simpson, which beat the Eagles 3-2 [22-25, 25-20, 25-20, 14-25, 16-18] on Nov. 6 to clinch a No. 4 seed in the conference tournament.

Yoder, who was named the 2015 CalPac freshman of the year, said she was very excited to help her team earn the come-from-behind victory.

"I think we all decided to fight and work together as a team," Yoder said. "Honestly I think we trusted each other, and we worked hard as a team. We wanted it bad and going to the championship was something we looked forward to."

So when the Eagles found themselves trailing early, Yoder said her team remained focused.

"We were all a bit worried, but we looked at each other and decided that we weren't going to let things end that way," Yoder said. "We came together."

And with Embry-Riddle's [20-9 Overall, 8-2 CalPac] 3-1 win over the Red Hawks on Oct. 6, Thursday's tournament semifinal meeting was the rubber match.

Simpson [13-13 Overall, 5-5 CalPac] jumped out to a 1-0 series lead with a 25-23 victory in game one. Embry-Riddle's six attach errors in game one led to a .093 hitting percentage, by far their lowest of the night.

Madison Rinehart for the Red Hawks recorded a match-high 24 kills and added 18 digs. Ashley Cervantes distributed 39 assists and had 24 digs.

With their backs against the wall after losing game two, 25-18, Embry-Riddle responded with three straight wins in game three [25-12], game four [25-14] and game five [15-7].

"I was confident in our ability to turn things around," Embry-Riddle head coach Jill Blasczyk said. "Simpson came out playing very well and they made no errors. We didn't get into a rhythm at first, and I knew if we made some minor adjustments we could get into a rhythm and that would change the dynamic moving forward."

That "rhythm" came at its peak for the Eagles in game four, recording one of their highest hitting percentages of the season in any single game with a .368 clip in game four, committing only three errors with 17 kills in 38 total chances.

Other top performances for Embry-Riddle include Jazmin Rogers with 15 kills and three block assists including a .382 hitting percentage, while CalPac 2015 libero of the year Monica Gomez had 37 digs.

Hannah Mercurio, the CalPac freshman of the year in 2013, had 22 assists, five digs and five block assists in the win.

The Eagles will face the winner of No. 2-seeded La Sierra and No. 3-seeded UC-Merced, which did not finish before press time, in Saturday's conference championship match.

Embry-Riddle has never won a CalPac title, having been in the league only four years. The Eagles have also never qualified for the NAIA National Volleyball Championships.

"I am very excited. We are in a position we want to be, to play for the title, and to go to nationals. I feel like we are ready. This experience tonight shows what we're capable of, even if we get down early, we can have success."

Follow Brian M. Bergner Jr. on Twitter at @SportsWriter52 or reach him by phone at 928-445-3333, ext. 1106, or 928-899-6946.