By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
RICHMOND, Ky. – Tennessee Tech volleyball nearly found a way to get a road win in its first Ohio Valley Conference match of the season, but could not complete its bid for a comeback in the fifth set at Eastern Kentucky Friday evening.
Tech (6-9, 0-1) and EKU (2-11, 1-0) battled through an extremely tight match, needing extra points to settle two of the five sets, including the decisive fifth, which was edged out by the Colonels, 16-14.
"It was a battle," said coach Jeannette Waldo. "We came out slow, and then kicked it into the right gear as we went. It got into a game of runs where both teams were going back and forth, and we kind of ended the battle on some controllable errors late in the match. We talked afterward about how we need to be cleaner at key moments like those."
Ali Verzani led TTU in scoring three of the five sets, including the first, when she tallied four of her team-best 16 kills and two service aces to help keep the Golden Eagles within striking distance. The redshirt sophomore ended up just short of her seventh double-double of the season, adding nine digs.
After trailing out of the gate, Tech used a 7-2 run to tie the first stanza at 17, but could not parlay it into a lead, as Eastern would regain the momentum on its way to a 25-20 set win.
Freshman Lauren Toledo provided a spark to start the roller-coaster second set, as Tech was able to build an early 6-1 lead as a result of her substituting in to serve.
Eastern fired back to tie the set at nine, and then added some of its own separation to pull into an 18-14 advantage.
The Golden Eagles would laugh last however, as three more Verzani kills would send them on an 11-5 run that clinched the set and pulled the match even.
Verzani's six kills with no errors led a .324 team hitting percentage for TTU in the second, its best in any set.
Shealene Little was another key piece of the Tech offense, putting up three kills in the second, third and fifth sets on way her to 12 for the match. The senior from Culver, Ore. was also a significant part of the defensive showing, racking up 10 digs for a double-double, the 11th of her career.
"Our outside hitters definitely knew they needed to step up for us," Waldo said. "We've kind of gotten to where other teams like to key on our middles because they've had success, so, right now, we need our outsides to take advantage of any soft spots teams might be given us. I thought (Verzani and Little) did a nice job of that tonight and it helped keep us in the match."
Rachel Thomas was the only Golden Eagle to outscore Little in the third set, recording four of her 12 kills in the period. She would also co-lead the team in blocks with four, and take the team's best attack percentage (.333) with three errors on 27 attempts.
Tech would hold the lead deep into the third set, until Eastern Kentucky clawed its way back in to tie it at 17.
The Golden Eagles rebounded, and later broke another tie score, 21-21, with three points in a row to put themselves on the verge of a 2-1 match lead.
Then, in an instant, EKU caught fire, scoring the next five points to steal the set victory, 26-24.
In a match that saw the momentum swing throughout, it was that five-point run by EKU that served as the turning point.
"That's when I knew it was going to go five sets," said Waldo. If we finish the third set, we probably win the match in four, but we still have to learn how to handle ourselves in these situations, though. We will do that as the conference season moves forward. We will learn and adjust."
Tech would bounce back to hit .300 with just four errors as a team in the fourth set, as it claimed the lead at 6-5 and never looked back.
Thomas shined on both sides of the net in the period, notching four kills and two assisted blocks, and helped key the answer TTU needed to force a fateful fifth set.
Eastern Kentucky appeared to have that fifth set locked up with the score 11-7, but the Golden Eagles had one more run in them.
Kills from Verzani and Thomas, a service ace from Kirsten Brugere, and a Colonel attack error tied it at 11, and Tech even managed a 13-12 lead, before a well-timed EKU kill and a pair of Tech errors gave the match to the home team.
"The biggest thing in conference play is to win your home matches and try to steal as many as you can on the road," said Waldo. "Tonight, we scrapped it out for five sets and nearly got one."
"Tomorrow, we go into a really tough environment at Morehead where they will feed off the energy from their crowd. We need to come out and jump on them early because they will be fired up after winning their match tonight. I think it will be much more structured, where there won't be as many crazy moments where both teams are just trying to keep the ball on the floor. I think this match will be much cleaner than tonight's was, and it will be interesting to see how our team responds to that."
Tech and Morehead will serve it up at 1 p.m. CT tomorrow from MSU's Wetherby Gym.