By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Tennessee Tech volleyball will hit the road for the second time this season, venturing west to Memphis for the Tiger Invitational.
After finishing up last weekend's Golden Eagle Invitational on a bit of a sour note, Tech righted the ship on Tuesday night, recovering its offensive swagger in a four-set win over Chattanooga.
The midweek triumph was exactly what the doctor ordered for a TTU team now looking to carry its momentum into its three-match weekend.
"Tuesday's win was really important for us after a couple tough losses," said head coach Jeannette Waldo. "I'm very proud of the bounce-back we showed. I think we're definitely more confident now as we go into this tournament in Memphis."
A new tournament brings a new set of goals for Waldo's Golden Eagles, who will face North Alabama in their opening match on Friday at 12:30 p.m. CT inside Memphis's Elma Roane Fieldhouse.
"The message is to control what we can control," Waldo said. "We need to serve tough, pass consistently, and take care of the ball when it's on our side. If we compete with low errors, that will help us greatly."
In its first season as a Division I program, North Alabama stumbled out of the starting blocks, dropping three matches to Little Rock (0-3), Jacksonville State (0-3) and Mercer (2-3) at the Jax State Invitational August 24-25.
They rebounded nicely at the Chattanooga Classic, beating Tennessee State (3-2) and UNC Asheville (3-0), before bowing to the host in five sets.
While its preliminary record in 2018 is underwhelming, history predicts UNA will make an eventual rise. The Lions participated in the NCAA Division II Regional in each of the past three seasons, and won back-to-back Gulf South Conference titles in 2015 and 2016.
This year's Lions are an extremely young team, returning just four players who competed in more than 32 sets last year. They are led offensively by Christina Ellwanger's 3.08 kills per set, with support from freshman outside hitter Sophia Brandstetter (2.67 kills/set).
The Lions also feature star setter Jayden Davila-McClary, who set up 1,463 kills last year for an 11.80 assists per set ratio.
"North Alabama just played Chattanooga recently and it was a very tight match, so that gave us a good indication of what they were like as a team," said Waldo. "We know that they will not back down easily so we need to come out swinging. "
The second match of Tech's third Friday doubleheader of the season will be against Memphis at 7 p.m.
The Tigers bring a 3-5 record into their second home tournament of the year, having gone 1-2 in the Memphis Invitational on opening weekend. Memphis started with a 3-0 loss to Stephen F. Austin, and then blanked Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 3-0, before falling to Arkansas State in straight sets.
At UT Martin's Skyhawk Invitational last weekend, Memphis dropped Florida A&M (3-1), lost to Martin (2-3) and Central Arkansas (0-3), and finished with a victory over UAB (3-0).
Right side Hannah Flowers paces the Tiger attack with 3.24 kills/set and a .300 attack percentage in 29 sets. The 6-foot, 2-inch sophomore has also contributed 52 digs and 20 blocks, and ranks fifth in the nation with 19 service aces.
Kelsea Bivins is the only other player with at least 3.0 kills/set. Her 2.07 digs/set is third-best on the squad, and she is one of three Tigers – excluding Flowers – with a hitting percentage of .250 or better (.266).
Freshman setter Molly Murrihy has played 28 of 29 sets with a 10.04 assists/set average, which ranks her third in the American Athletic Conference.
"Memphis is a team that we played in spring, so we have a feel for some of their attackers," said Tech's first-year head coach. "I'm sure they won't be the same team as the spring – no one is – but we feel some familiarity with this squad going into the match."
Tech's final game will come Saturday morning at 10 a.m. against Louisiana-Monroe.
ULM has struggled in the early stages of the season with a 2-5 record, but produced quite a highlight on opening weekend, knocking off Southeastern Conference opponent Mississippi State on its home court, 3-1, at the 2018 Starkvegas Classic.
Monroe's other two matches in Starkville were finished in straight sets with a victory over Mississippi Valley State and a loss to Cal Baptist.
The Warhawks have lost four straight since that first weekend, coming up short to Northwestern State (2-3), Radford (0-3) and host Southeast Missouri (0-3) at the Redhawk Invitational, and dropping a nonconference match to Stephen F. Austin (0-3) on Tuesday.
Outside hitter Kate Blasingame and middle blocker Katherine Griffith are the most productive Warhawks with 2.21 kills/set and 2.04 kills/set, respectively. Griffith is also the most efficient attacker for Monroe with a .274 hitting percentage.
Senior Tara Jenkins (3.79 assists/set) and freshman McKinley Thiede (3.32 assists/set) split time at the setter position.
"Louisiana-Monroe has the ability to be scrappy and create points out of broken plays," said Waldo. "We need to make sure to stay disciplined against them and play Tech volleyball."
TTU will end the tournament phase of its schedule on the West Coast, participating in the Seattle U Redhawk Invitational next weekend.
Photo by Thomas Corhern