By Chris Schmidbauer, Owens Community College Sports Information Director
Rochester, Minn. -- It took Owens Volleyball head coach Sonny Lewis 18 seasons to win his first national championship. It took just 371 days to win his second. The Express swept their way to the program's second consecutive national championship on Saturday evening, defeating conference rival Columbus State for the fifth time this season.
Owens began the match on fire. The Express took eight of the first ten points scored in the first set, to take a commanding 8-2 lead. The Cougars would pull to within five points at 10-5 before Owens pushed their lead to eight points at 16-8 off a Columbus State attacking error. Owens would maintain that lead to 18-10 and the Express would go on to score five of the set's next six points, capped off by a kill by Megan Dunne. Three serves later, Kayla Bekier would close out the set with a kill to secure the first set for the Express, winning the opening frame 25-12.
The Cougars were able to flip the scripts in the second set, jumping out to a 7-2 lead. Owens would take a timeout and rebound quickly, scoring the next four points to pull back within 7-6 on a kill by Arielle Snider. Again, the Express would go on a scoring run, scoring six of the next eight points, taking a 12-9 lead in the second set on a kill by Semira Neely. Owens would pish the lad to four, and the teams would trade points back and forth. The Express would maintain that lead to 21-17. Two Semira Neely kills would be sandwiched around two Olivia Materni ace serves to give the Express the final four points of the set and a commanding 2-0 lead in the match.
The third set would be a battle once again. The Cougars would jump out to a 3-1 lead in the third set, before Owens would score three straight to take a 4-3 lead. The score would end up being tied at 9-9, but Columbus State would go on to win the next three points to take a 12-9 lead off a attack error by Kayla Bekier. Owens would continue to trail by three when the scored reached 14-11 in favor of the Cougars. The third set would take a dramatic swing, with Owens winning the next five points. Two kills from Tyriana Settles and a kill from Rebecca Brown would force a Columbus State timeout with Owens leading 15-14. An attacking error on the next point would give the Express a 16-14 lead. Owens would widen the advantage to four points after a Bekier kill at 20-16, but Columbus State did not go quietly. The Cougars would score the next three points to trim the Express advantage to just one. A service error on Columbus State followed by another Kayla Bekier kill put the advantage back to 22-19 in favor of the Express. The Cougars would get a point back, but after an attack error and Semira Neely kill, it was championship point for the Express. McFinsey Finnen's serve was returned by Columbus State, but Rebecca Brown would set up Kayla Bekier for the final kill of the 2019 season to give Owens their second straight National Championship.
The national title was a fitting end to another dominant season for the Express on the volleyball court. Owens began the season as the preseason No. 1 ranked team heading into the 2019 campaign. The Express lost 10 of the 14 players from the year's previous national title team, losing their top three attackers, their top setter, and their starting libero from the year before. Despite the lack of experience, Owens found a way to win their first seven matches in a row to begin the season. After a loss to Glen Oaks on August 30, the Express would reel off 16 straight victories.
The Express never lost consecutive matches more than once all season, and the team hasn't lost a set since their Region XII championship match against Columbus State back on October 26. Owens also kept their regular season OCCAC winning streak alive, having now won 76 consecutive regluar season matches. The Express captured their fifth straight OCCAC title this season as well.
The Express won the Region XII tournament and the Mid-Atlantic District Tournament, beating the Cougars both times.
The Express finish the season with a record of 43-4, marking the fifth straight year where the team has won 40 or more games. They finish three wins shy of the all-time mark of 46 victories in a season set by the 2000 and 2002 team. The 43 wins also marks the second most wins in a season since 1994.
Owens had two players named to the Division III NJCAA All Tournament Team. Kayla Bekier, who had 33 total kills during the tournament, including 15 against Brookhaven, and Rebecca Brown, who is the program's new assists leader for a single season, tallied 133 total assists in the three game tournament run. Brown finishes with 1,648 total assists for the season, which was best in the country in Division III.
Tyriana Settles was named the tournament's MVP. She had a team high 41 kills during the three game run, and she also finished with 26 digs in the championship match. She finished as the national leader for Division III for kills with 640 total on the season.
Sonny Lewis, who won his 700th career game back on October 26, was named the Coach of the Year for the second straight season. Lewis is now 708-200 in 19 years as the head coach of the Express. He has won 78% of the games he has coached at Owens.
The back to back National Championships is the second time an athletic program has completed such a feat in the school's history. The Owens Men's Basketball program won back to back titles in the 1991-1992 and the 1992-1993 seasons.