Women’s volleyball claims 15th Patriot League championship
Tournament MVP Kazala leads Eagles to fifth straight NCAA Tournament birth
When the AU volleyball team faced off against Navy a month ago at Bender Arena, the marathon match was contested in five sets over two hours. On Sunday in the Patriot League Championship, AU made quick work of the Mids, 25-17, 25-14, 25-22 to earn its fifth consecutive league title.
Head coach Barry Goldberg identified the Oct. 20 matchup against Navy as a turning point for his team when they came back from two sets down to defeat the Mids and regain control atop the Patriot League.
“It was a big confidence builder for us at that point,” Goldberg said. “Our confidence kept growing as we got accustomed to the things we needed to do to be successful. We had some lineup changes [after that match], we got to a set lineup the second half [of the season] and played very well.”
AU was led on Sunday by Patriot League Player of the Year Aleksandra Kazala, who finished the match with 18 kills and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Kazala set the tone of the match early, by recording kills on each of the Eagles first four attacks in the first set. AU never relinquished the lead and finished the first set with an attacking percentage of 0.517.
The Eagles (26-7, 17-1 PL) jumped out to a quick lead in the second set, but Navy was able to keep the set close behind the efforts of All-Tournament team selections setter Patricia Mattingly and outside hitter Tara Dotzauer. With AU leading the second set 9-7, sophomore outside hitter Shannon Webb jumpstarted a 5-1 run that gave the Eagles a six-point lead in the set and the momentum to seize the second set.
“We talked about trying to make [the tournament] a 3-0, 3-0 event to really put a stamp that we’re really playing well right now,” Goldberg said. “Luckily, we found a way to do that.”
Navy came out aggressively in the third set and behind a balanced attack from Dotzauer, Maddi Sgattoni and Dorothy Murray, and controlled the opening stages of the set. With the set tied at 22, junior middle blocker Cheyenne Orsi and Webb combined to block a Navy attack and give the Eagles the lead for good. Webb served out the final two points to give the Eagles their fifth consecutive Patriot League title and 15th overall since joining the league in 2001.
Goldberg said he stressed the need to come out focused in the third set and prevent the Mids from gaining a foothold in the match
“‘We have to start the game again, it’s brand new to start. We won two [sets], but it’s a brand new start,’” Goldberg said of his message to his team at the halftime interval. “We finished pretty well, although it was a tight game there. [Navy] played a little better, hit some better balls in game three and we pulled off some plays at the end.”
Orsi finished the match with nine kills for the Eagles while Webb and freshman outside hitter Helena Elbaek added eight kills for the Eagles. Sophomore middle blocker Vel McBride and junior setter Kennedy Etheridge were named to the All-Tournament team for their play, averaging six kills and 37 assists respectively over the two Tournament games.
The Eagles will return to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive season. The Eagles were defeated in the opening round of the tournament in 2016, falling to the University of Michigan in three sets. The Eagles have had success recently in the NCAA Tournament, defeating Kentucky in 2015 and defeating Georgia and Duke in 2013 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. The opening round pairings will be announced at 9:00 p.m. on Nov. 26.
“We’ve got a good core and all of them coming back, there’s not a senior starting in this group,” Goldberg said. “We’ll see if we can’t make a little move in the [NCAA] tournament this year and see if we can get a game or two this year to continue to build on what we have.”