The Carthage men’s volleyball team celebrated Senior Night on Wednesday by sweeping Millikin in the cozy home confines of Tarble Arena to clinch the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin regular-season title outright.
And after the match, Carthage coach JW Kieckhefer was succinct about what his team’s goals are now for the rest of the season.
“The goal right now is to not leave Tarble Arena,” Kieckhefer said in a post-match interview with WLIP AM-1050’s John Weiser, posted on the Carthage athletics website. “That’s the goal with this group.”
Then, Kieckhefer pointed to the CCIW regular-season championship trophy the Firebirds received Wednesday.
“Goal No. 1, achieved right here,” he said.
To reach its ultimate goal now, which is defending the NCAA Division III national championship it won last year, Carthage may not have to leave Tarble Arena again this season.
With Wednesday’s 25-12, 25-9, 25-21 sweep of Millikin, the Firebirds clinched the No. 1 seed and hosting rights for the CCIW Tournament, which begins next week Wednesday. Carthage already has its CCIW Tournament semifinal matchup set, as the Firebirds with host No. 4 seed North Park next Wednesday night, with the winner advancing to the title match on Saturday, April 9.
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The winner of the CCIW Tournament clinches the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament. Before hosting the CCIW Tournament, Carthage wraps up the regular season at home at 3 p.m. Saturday against CCIW foe Loras (Iowa).
The Firebirds, who have won 17 straight matches since starting the season 0-3 to move to 17-3 overall and 11-0 in the CCIW, were ranked No. 3 in this week’s NCAA Division III coaches poll and No. 1 in the Region III rankings, also released this week.
That means Carthage is on track to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Division III Tournament as a No. 1 seed. Tarble Arena will then be the site of the Final Four and the national title match from April 22-23, whether the Firebirds are in it or not, after Carthage was named the host school for those matches prior to the season.
Therefore, Carthage could play at home all the way through the postseason after finishing the regular season with three straight home matches, including a non-conference sweep of regional opponent Milwaukee School of Engineering on Tuesday night.
“It’s nice to see us ranked No. 1 in the region,” Kieckhefer said following Wednesday’s sweep of Millikin. “That means all we have to do is take care of business. We don’t have to hope and pray somebody loses anymore. We are in control of where we go.
“It’s super cool to host the NCAA Tournament here. But for us, we want to dictate play, and that starts with forcing people to come here to Tarble.”
As for Wednesday’s match specifically, the night turned out perfectly to honor the program’s six seniors, Kyle Cohan, Nick Cookingham, Andrew Otto, Matt Slivinski, Peyton Wieter and Evan Cashen. With the Firebirds in total control of the match, Kieckhefer was able to give playing time to players who don’t normally see a whole lot.
The Firebirds were led in kills by freshman outside hitter Jack McDonald (10), Cashen (nine) and Otto (six), while Otto also racked up eight blocks and Cookingham totaled 35 assists, eight digs and two aces.
After a rough start to the season, Carthage has now won 51 of 56 sets overall during its 17-match winning streak, including 21 straight sets since dropping the opening set in a four-set victory at Loras on March 9.
“Really proud of our guys and the battle we’ve had to go through this season,” Kieckhefer said. “Wasn’t always the prettiest, wasn’t always the greatest volleyball at times, but I think we’ve gotten to such a fantastic place with the volleyball that we play. This entire group, no matter who’s in, plays the right system volleyball.
“That was on display (Wednesday), as we definitely honored our seniors, and all six of them started. And we also got some of those seniors who maybe haven’t played as much time as some other ones (in) that entire match. Really proud of this group, the entire group. Winning these things (conference titles) takes an entire group to buy in, and I love every single one of those guys.”