By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – It all comes down to this.
Saturday's final match of the regular season will determine whether the Tennessee Tech volleyball program – in its first year under the direction of head coach Jeannette Waldo – will qualify for the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament for the first time since 2015.
Tech (11-18, 5-10 OVC), and its upcoming opponent, UT Martin (13-16, 6-9), came into this week in a tie for eighth place in the league standings, and were also two of the four OVC teams to begin the homestretch with a midweek matchup.
UT Martin took a resounding victory over Southeast Missouri on Tuesday, 3-0, while Tech was unable to accomplish the same feat in its Wednesday night tilt with Jacksonville State.
With the rest of the conference getting started Friday evening, both clubs will be following the action attentively, as the postseason picture becomes clearer and clearer.
While the only thing either team can do is watch on Friday, both know that a victory in Saturday's 2 p.m. showdown would go a long way toward punching their ticket to the tournament.
A win for Martin would guarantee the Skyhawks a berth, while Tech would need a victory, and both Eastern Illinois and Belmont to lose one of their two remaining matches.
While the strength of the remaining schedules for EIU and Belmont favor the Golden Eagles, coach Jeannette Waldo knows all of those things are irrelevant if her team can't uphold its end of the bargain.
"There are a lot of potential outcomes that could affect the situation, but unless we take care of the ball when it's on our side, and find ways to score points, none of that really matters," she said.
This will be the first meeting of the season between TTU and Martin, as the two teams last met on September 22 of last year.
The Skyhawks have been streaky recently, having lost four in a row before triumphing over SEMO on Tuesday. Prior to that stretch, however, Martin had run off four straight wins against teams in the bottom half of the league standings.
Head coach Jacylnn Wilson's team is led offensively by outside hitters Megan Fair and Hannah Phillips, who average 2.50 and 2.42 kllls per set, respectively.
Junior middle blocker Gintare Mackeviciute has also made quite an impact in her first season for UTM, turning in a kills per set average of 2.08, and leading the team in hitting percentage with a .291 clip that is fifth-best in the Ohio Valley.
The 'Hawks are also the deadliest team in the conference from behind the service line, as they boast 1.46 team aces per set, as well as six players with at least 20 aces individually.
Lastly, Martin has the best – or, at least the busiest – libero in the conference in senior Brooke Gyori, who is averaging 5.28 digs per set for the season, and an astronomical 5.71 DPS in OVC matches.
"They're a very talented team with a lot of offensive weapons, but they haven't had a lot of success on the road for some reason," said Waldo of UTM. "With them kind of being out of their comfort zone, and us having a solid plan of attack and feeling comfortable on our home court, I think all those things combined give us a really good opportunity to take one at home when it REALLY counts."
Regardless of how things play out, there are plenty of positives to take from Year 1 of Waldo's TTU coaching career, but to play in the league tournament, a goal the Golden Eagles outlined during preseason practice, would be a special achievement all to itself.
"I think (a conference tournament berth) would really make it very evident to all of our younger players that you don't have to have a perfect season," Waldo said. "You just have to battle it out well enough to get into the tournament, and then anything can happen. Moving forward, it would be great for our non-seniors to get a feel for what needs to be done in the regular season in order to get in."
On top of all the late-season drama, Saturday will also be the final regular-season match for Tech's five seniors – Kirsten Brugere, Shaneice James, Susie Jeziorowski, Shealene Little and Jessica Oliver – who will be recognized with their families following the match.
"Our senior group has been so great," Waldo said. "They've gone through a lot of adversity. They've been very open to doing whatever we ask them to do. They've worked hard, and they've set a good example through both their actions and their words. To be so connected and invested with this group, having been with them for only nine months, the ceremony will be emotional for sure."
"I think it's very poetic that it's our last chance, our last home game, senior night, and everything comes down to this."
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information