By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Tech's first Ohio Valley Conference win didn't come easy on Friday night, but the Golden Eagles ended up victorious over a scrappy Belmont club, downing the Bruins in five sets: 21-25, 25-20, 25-11, 18-25, 15-10.
A joyful and relieved Jeannette Waldo admitted that her team's outing was by no means a flawless one, but that she was delighted to get into the win column for the first time in OVC play.
"Obviously it was a great win, as all of them are during the conference season," said the first-year head coach. "For some reason, I think it feels a little bit better when you win in five, but I know we could have handled it in fewer sets than that if we would have just shown up for every point. We were very inconsistent."
Tech played well to start the match, forcing Belmont to take a timeout just eight points into the first set.
Rachel Thomas recorded two kills to lead TTU to that early 6-2 advantage, and was a major factor all night long, pacing the team with 18 points on 12 kills, a team-high seven blocks, and one service ace. She also took the team's second-best hitting percentage, .267.
Unfortunately for Thomas and the Golden Eagles, however, Belmont's timeout was effective, and the Bruins would spawn a 13-3 run of their own to open a 15-10 lead.
Suddenly playing from behind, TTU would get the score back to within two at 20-18, but could get no closer.
Momentum can change drastically from set to set in a volleyball match. Such was the case in the second stanza on Friday night.
Tech committed just two attack errors in posting a team percentage of .275 – its best of the night – and got nearly perfect scoring distribution, as Thomas, Taylor Dorsey, Erica Grant and Ali Verzani killed three balls each.
Once TTU had jumped out to an 11-4 lead in the set, Belmont was never able to close the deficit to less than four.
Dorsey joined Thomas to create a formidable tandem at middle blocker for which Belmont seemingly had no answer.
The freshman from Birmingham, Ala. also produced 12 kills, was second with four blocks and committed only two errors for a team-high .476 percentage. She was just .002 off her career mark for the category, a .478 turned in against Chattanooga on Sept. 4.
"We knew we had to beat them in middle, because they are good on the outside defensively," Waldo said. "And we also knew our middles were up to that task. We just needed to clean up our first touch a little bit so we could be in positions where we could force the middle, and then they were just able to get out and have some fun."
Grant shined in the third set, driving the offense with six of her game-high 14 kills. The athletic freshman showed flashes of star potential as an outside hitter, as she continues to move forward in her development.
"(Erica) has been itching to get back on the court, and we've been building her confidence up and doing different things with her in practice," said Waldo. "Sometimes she plays like a superstar, and sometimes she plays like a freshman – and that's okay because she is a freshman. She's still learning. She's a great weapon, she just needs to learn how to play to her strengths."
The third set played out a lot like the second, with TTU jumping out to a sizable lead and never looking back. This time, the Golden Eagles swelled a 16-5 advantage out of the gate, and then answered a six-point Belmont run with the final nine in a row courtesy of a block party put on by Thomas, Verzani and Shaneice James.
With the score 20-11, Tech scored three straight points on blocks: first, a solo from Thomas, then a combined effort from Thomas and James, and then James by herself.
After a Bruin error made it 23-11, Thomas teamed up with Verzani to reject another BU attempt.
Tech finished with a significant edge in the category, with 13.0 team blocks to Belmont's 4.0.
The fourth set was where it took a turn for the worse.
Belmont seized control right away and never lost it, building a 17-8 lead before a TTU timeout. The gap would get no smaller than six the rest of the way, and a set victory by the visiting team sent the match to a fateful fifth set.
The fifth was a back-and-forth affair up until the halfway point, when Belmont scored their eighth to prompt the teams switching benches.
Sensing a pivotal moment, Waldo called a timeout to ask her team one question:
"I looked them in their eyes and asked them, 'are you all in!?'" she said. "We decided everyone was all in, we were going to focus on the finish line, and take it one point at a time to get there."
And, led by Thomas, they did just that.
The junior from Okemos, Mich. rose to the occasion and scored four of Tech's next five points with four kills to put her team in front 12-9, and deliver the knockout blow to Belmont.
"To rise above all of our mistakes tonight and be able to come out of that hole and be so fearless in the fifth set was something I'm really proud of them for doing," said Waldo.
TTU also got it done in the backcourt, totaling 74 team digs. As usual, libero Kirsten Brugere spearheaded the effort with 19 digs, while Abigail Duncan turned in a career-high 18 from here outside hitter position, and setter Susie Jeziorowski added 15 digs to her 44 assists on the night to record a double-double.
The Golden Eagles are back in action Saturday afternoon as they host Tennessee State at 2 p.m. The Tigers remained perfect in conference play (3-0) with a 3-1 win over Jacksonville State Friday night.
"Tennessee State has some really good weapons, so we have to make sure we're ready for them," said Waldo. "So, we'll watch video in the morning and the girls will see what they do, and hopefully we'll put ourselves in position for another victory."
Photo by Thomas Corhern