By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Fresh off a promising start to the season at Western Illinois' Leatherneck Invitational, the Tennessee Tech volleyball team is preparing to host its own tournament, the Golden Eagle Invitational, starting Thursday night in the Hooper Eblen Center.
Several Golden Eagles – including OVC Co-Offensive Player of the Week Rachel Thomas – showcased flashes of brilliance at Western, giving followers of the program much to be excited about.
The team's new challenge, as coach Jeannette Waldo knows, is to replicate and sustain those efforts throughout the course of the season.
"The team has been feeling good after the first weekend, but our heads are still down and we know there is still work to do," Waldo said. "We have been stressing the importance of consistency and we need to show up day in and day out in order to achieve that."
With four games in the Hoop from Thursday to Saturday, Waldo recognizes the opportunity her team has to make a big first impression on the hometown faithful.
"We are absolutely thrilled to show our fans what we have been working to build within our new program," she said. "We want to show them that we are going to be ready to compete every game, so I hope we have a lot of fans there who are ready to take notice."
Tech opens the round-robin action against Hampton at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Hampton struggled to score in its first three matches of the year at the Morehead State Eagle Challenge, with losses to Bradley (3-0), St. Francis Brooklyn (3-1) and Morehead State (3-0). Coach Brandon Duvall's Pirates are led by junior right side Megann Delgado and senior outside hitter Lena Washington.
Delgado, playing in her first season at Hampton after transferring from Cal State Fullerton, is the biggest gun offensively with team-highs in kills (27), kills per set (2.70) and points (35.0).
Washington has been Hampton's best defensive player so far with 26 digs, and has recorded the team's only double-double this season with 11 kills and 15 digs vs. St. Francis Brooklyn. Both players share the team lead in blocks with five.
"Hampton is our first opportunity to compete on our home floor so we will be fired up," said Waldo. "They will be a great first contest as they will test our discipline right off the bat. They are a scrappy bunch so we need to make sure to respond accordingly."
The first of Tech's two matches on Friday will be against USC Upstate at 1 p.m.
Upstate was at the Charlotte Invitational last weekend, where it was defeated in all three matches, but improved in each one, losing 3-0 to Virginia Tech, 3-1 to Charlotte, and dropping sets four and five to fall to Elon, 3-2.
Do-it-all outside hitter Payton Duncan paced the Spartan attack in Charlotte with 23 kills and 1.92 kills/set, while also leading the charge defensively with 44 digs and 3.67 digs/set. She has the best serve on the team as well, recording five aces and a .979 percentage.
Middle blocker McKenna Kirkpatrick, outside hitter Mackenzie Lauer, and middle blocker Emily Russell have been the best in supporting roles. Kirkpatrick has 22 kills, a .203 hitting percentage and seven blocks; Lauer has 18 kills; and Russell has 17 kills and nine blocks, which leads coach Jennifer Calloway's club.
"USC Upstate is coming off of a tough weekend of close losses which will make them out for revenge," the coach said. "We will need to execute our game plan from the first point to build momentum the way we need to."
The Golden Eagles will face the University of New Orleans in Friday's nightcap at 6 p.m.
Opening the season with its New Orleans Invitational, UNO won its first match against another UNO – Nebraska-Omaha – by a score of 3-1. The Privateers then lost to Houston (3-2) and Murray State (3-0) to round out tournament play, before being blanked by city rival Tulane in their first midweek match Tuesday night.
With 47 kills, 58.5 points and 111 attacks, junior outside hitter Brianna Vega has been the focal point of New Orleans' offense so far. Vega turned in big performances in her first two matches against Nebraska-Omaha and Houston, totaling 33 kills, but has been limited much more effectively since then with just 14 combined kills in her last two matches.
First Team Preseason All-Southland Conference middle blocker Kaitlyn Grice has also been a major contributor for UNO with 25 kills, and is one of the nation's best net defenders with 25 blocks.
"New Orleans battled hard this past weekend and it's obvious that they do not shy away from a fight," said Waldo. "Our players were tested in this same way this past weekend, so this should be a familiar feeling, we just have to make sure we stay on alert."
Tech's tournament schedule concludes with East Carolina at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.
East Carolina brings the best record of any team coming to Cookeville this weekend, having defeated Spring Hill College and Alcorn State in straight sets before falling in three to Southern Miss at the Southern Miss Classic.
Senior right side hitter Bri Wood tops the stat sheet for an ECU team that features five different players with 15 kills or more. Wood's 26 kills and 3.25 kills/set are the best marks on the squad for both categories, and her 21 digs and 29.5 points are also team-highs. Freshman outside hitter Natalie Tyson is the team's most accurate attacker with 18 kills and just two errors on 44 attempts for a .364 hitting percentage.
"East Carolina is our fourth match of our home tournament and usually a tournament consists of just three," Waldo said. "Our players will be a little fatigued, so this fourth match will test our heart and our dedication to what we are out to accomplish. (ECU) is a winning program, and we have no doubt they will be ready to compete."
"The talent that will be represented in the Hoop this weekend will be high, so it should be very entertaining for everyone that makes it out. With our home match on Tuesday, we play five matches in six days so there will be plenty of opportunities for everyone to catch some Golden Eagle volleyball. Wings Up!"
Game 1 - Tech vs. Hampton, 6 p.m. Thursday
Game 2 - New Orleans vs. Hampton, 10 a.m. Friday
Game 3 - Tech vs. USC Upstate, 1 p.m. Friday
Game 4 - Hampton vs. East Carolina, 3:30 p.m. Friday
Game 5 - Tech vs. New Orleans, 6 p.m. Friday
Game 6 - East Carolina vs. USC Upstate, 10 a.m. Saturday
Game 7 - Tech vs. East Carolina, 2 p.m. Saturday
Game 8 - New Orleans vs. USC Upstate, 4 p.m. Saturday