RACHEL DEVOR / THE EAGLE
Behind the all-around play of freshman Sara Rishell, the AU volleyball team captured its 10th Patriot League Championship in the last 11 years with a four-set victory over the Army Black Knights Nov. 20 at Bender Arena
“It feels great,” said Rishell, who was named the Tournament Most Valuable Player. “Looking at all the banners up there, they have a ton of them, and just to follow in the footsteps of the teams before us, working hard, it just feels great.”
Coming off a slow performance against Colgate University, the Eagles (23-10, 13-1 PL) jumped out to a 13-8 lead in the first set.
Led by All-Patriot League First Team selection Ariana Mankus, the Black Knights (23-8, 12-2 PL) scored five straight points to tie the game at 13.
The Eagles then won the set 25-21 after sparking a 7-2 run and weathering a late Army comeback.
AU had an almost identical performance on the court in the second set, as Juliana Crum registered five kills to help American take the game 25-21 for a commanding 2-0 lead.
But Army responded.
Mankus and Margaux Jarka combined for eight of the Black Knights’ 11 kills to keep Army alive with a 25-21 third-set triumph.
“It’s tough because they’re excellent attackers,” AU’s Rebecca Heath said. “We’ve really been working in practice on staying with plays and with the ball. Even if it’s not perfect, just finding a way through it, and I think it showed.”
In a back-and-forth match, the fourth set was no different than the previous three.
With the score tied at 21, Mankus’ serve sailed out of bounds to give AU a one-point advantage. On the ensuing point Rishell, the Patriot League Rookie and Player of the Year, came up big with a tip kill that went over the head of Army libero D.J. Phee.
The Eagles did not look back as they took the fourth set 25-21 to win the championship.
In a game where there were 30 ties and 12 lead changes, AU Head Coach Barry Goldberg knew that keeping the lead was important.
“The lead was everything in this,” said Goldberg, the 2011 Patriot League Coach of the Year. “That part of the game there, [when you get into the 20s] it’s tough to come back. You’ve got to have some real strength about what you’re doing.”
AU has now won 18 of its last 19 matches, as Rishell, Crum and Heath recorded double-digit kills in the title tilt.
Heath posted a double-double in both tournament matches as her, Rishell and freshman Monika Smidova were named to the All-Tournament Team.
At the beginning of the season, many had doubts if a team with eight freshmen could regroup and win a title, but this team proved otherwise.
“It feels great whenever you can prove people wrong,” Rishell said. “We did have a young team, but we had a lot of leaders step up, nobody gave up hope. We worked hard everyday and, you know, hard work showed itself.”