By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – After a pair of huge wins inside the Hooper Eblen Center last weekend that greatly aided their Ohio Valley Conference Tournament hopes, Tennessee Tech volleyball will take its talents on the road again to throw down with two of the league's best, Murray State and Austin Peay.
Jeannette Waldo reported she felt her team had "turned a corner" with regards to its confidence following the sweep, and understandably so.
The Golden Eagles came away with victories over SIUE and Eastern Illinois, and got it done on both sides of the court. Ali Verzani (31 kills), Erica Grant (29) and Rachel Thomas (21) led a superb offensive effort facilitated by Susie Jeziorowski (94 assists), while Kirsten Brugere racked up 4.88 digs per set in the back court, and Taylor Dorsey was in on 11 of Tech's 18 blocks.
Verzani's 3.88 kills per set, .338 hitting percentage, five service aces, 21 digs and four blocks over two matches awarded her both the Co-Offensive Player and the Newcomer of the Week from the OVC on Monday.
"Our confidence seems to be at a new level after last weekend," Waldo said. "We remain very focused in practice with earning a spot in our conference tournament being out No. 1 goal. Our staff is constantly reiterating that the conference rankings will continue to shift, so every set matters, and the 'buy in' is definitely there from everyone."
The surge in confidence and chemistry could not have come at a better time for TTU, as the caliber of its two upcoming opponents will require the Golden Eagles' to bring their very best in order to prevail.
Murray State is the trip's first destination, with the match set for a 7 p.m. start Friday evening from Racer Arena, the second-largest facility in all of NCAA Division I that is used solely for volleyball.
The Racers tote an 11-9 overall record into Friday's matchup after sweeping Tennessee State and Belmont most recently. Those two wins made five in a row in the league for MSU, which opened conference play with three straight losses for a 5-3 OVC mark.
The current streak, which dates back to September 29, features back-to-back-to-back straight-sets victories over Eastern Kentucky, SIUE and Eastern Illinois prior to the sweep of the Nashville representatives.
The three conference losses suffered before the proverbial switch flicked on for Murray State came to UT Martin (3-2), Southeast Missouri (3-2) and Austin Peay (3-1) – all were road matches.
Murray currently boasts the top two individual kills per set averages in the conference in outside hitter Rachel Giustino (4.12) and middle blocker Dacia Brown (3.78).
Giustino's kills per set are good enough for 37th nationally, at the moment. In addition, she has the highest digs per set of MSU's non-liberos (3.10), ranks second on the club with 18 service aces, and is fourth in blocks with 29. She has also maintained a .200 hitting percentage over a team-high 825 attempts.
Brown, a fifth-year senior, is the only middle blocker in the league's top 10 for KPS. She also owns the team's best attack percentage with a .221, and is third in blocks with 30.
Combined, the tandem has accounted for 1,571 of Murray's 2,635 attacks, just under 60 percent.
Libero Becca Fernandez commands the backcourt with 4.58 digs per set for the season, which is fourth-best in conference. She has been especially stellar in league play, upping that mark to 5.62 over eight contests.
"Murray State is a very talented team with very talented pieces," Waldo said. "They have players with very high volleyball IQs that can move around between different positions. We need to make sure to focus on the attacker in front of us first, then worry about the big picture in order to succeed. They also have a very aggressive serving game and we need to win the serve and pass battle to put ourselves in a good place offensively."
Tech will square off with Austin Peay, the top dogs in the OVC, on Saturday at 2 p.m. from the Governors' Winfield Dunn Center.
Austin Peay is accompanied by Morehead State atop the Ohio Valley standings with records of 7-1. The Govs, however, own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Eagles by way of a 3-0 victory on Sept. 29.
AP's lone conference blemish is a bit of a head-scratcher, as it fell on the road to lowly Belmont (2-18, 2-6 OVC) in five sets.
That result notwithstanding, the Govs' have been nearly untouchable in league matches, outscoring opponents 21-4 in their seven victories. They also turned in an outstanding 11-2 nonconference season, which equates to their overall record of 18-3.
The Governors play a solid all-around game, leading the conference in team kills (14.06), assists (13.21) and digs (17.17) per set, along with hitting percentage (.242).
Senior outside hitter Cecily Gable's 3.57 kills per set, which is third-best in the OVC, leads the AP offense. Gable won Co-Offensive Player of the Week along with Tech's Rachel Thomas on August 27.
Sophomore Brooke Moore starts opposite Gable, and also finds herself in the league's top 10 for KPS, coming in at No. 8 with 3.21. She's also third on the team with 20 service aces, and manages just a shade under three digs per set (2.91).
The Govs also have three players in the top 10 for hitting percentage, led by Kaylee Taff's .299, which is second-best in the league. Freshman Jenna Panning and senior Logan Carger rank seventh and eighth, respectively, with rates of .276 and .273.
Highly-decorated setter Kristen Stucker leads the OVC in assists per set with 11.21. The senior is the only setter in the conference to average more than 11 APS for the year, and has been honored as the league's Setter of the Week in five of the season's eight weeks. Stucker also contributes 2.67 digs per set on the defensive end.
Liberos Ginny Gerig (4.19 digs per set) and Jaymeson Kinley (3.65) have shared the spotlight in the back court.
"(Austin Peay) has had a successful conference season so far and they bring some heat offensively," Waldo said. "If our offense can stay creative, I think we can outwork their defense, but if we start to get too vanilla, it might be hard for us to score. If we start the first 5 points with energy and fire, we will set ourselves up for an easier road to victory."
"This road trip will be a great test for us. We have climbed a long way since the season began, and we are ready for these two talented teams that we will face. If we show up and play TTU volleyball, we should find success."
Photo by Thomas Corhern