By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – It wasn't the same dominating performance from Friday night, but they'll take it.
Tennessee Tech volleyball was not perfect on Saturday afternoon against Eastern Illinois, but it rose to the occasion when it mattered most in the fifth set, dispatching the Panthers 15-4 for a 3-2 victory.
The Golden Eagles improve to a 9-13 season record, and are now 3-5 in OVC play, which looks markedly different from the 1-5 conference mark they brought into the weekend.
A relieved Jeannette Waldo acknowledged her team's miscues, but was thrilled with the idea of completing the program's first weekend sweep of conference opponents in the Hooper Eblen Center since September 26-27, 2014.
Ironically, those two wins came against the same two programs, but in reverse order. Tech beat Eastern Illinois first, 3-1, then followed up with a 3-2 victory over SIUE the following day.
"We've got some things to talk about, for sure," Waldo said, acknowledging her team's miscues. "We always work a lot on serving, so it was disappointing to see that we couldn't find the court so many times. We'll have to iron some things out and see who can handle the pressure of being on that line in the big moments."
"Obviously it was great to see us finish the fifth set the way that we did, and it just goes to show that there are a lot of players who are hungry to win on this team. We have the drive to do it, and we're making progress with our consistency. These were two very winnable matches for us and it was great to capitalize on that, especially at home. We should have a little bit of momentum behind us right now."
Tech dominated the first set, turning in a sizzling .379 team hitting percentage with only one error en route to a 25-13 victory.
Ali Verzani's five kills in the opening period paced a Tech club that jumped out to a 7-1 lead out of the gate and never looked back.
Verzani would go on to record a sensational all-around effort with 19 kills and two errors on 49 attempts for a .347 percentage. She added a career-high five service aces, along with 15 digs for her ninth double-double.
The Sioux City, Iowa native has become a much more efficient attacker over her last three matches, posting attack percentages of .288, .323, and now .347. She has committed only 10 errors in that time, while functioning as TTU's No. 1 option with 52 kills and 132 attempts.
"She probably liked being in the spotlight a little bit more today," said Waldo of Verzani. "Our middles kind of hog it for us a lot, and obviously she always wants to be the one with the ball in her hand when she can get the opportunities. She was great for us today."
EIU came out with more of a sense of urgency in the second set, and Tech turned in its worst hitting percentage of the afternoon. The Golden Eagles mounted a 7-0 run midway through to open a four-point advantage, but simply could not overcome their mistakes in falling 25-22.
Shaneice James came off the bench to record four of her 11 kills in the second set, and helped keep TTU in it despite their woes. The senior from Cleveland attacked 29 times on the afternoon, and with only two errors, took the team's best percentage, .429. She was also a contributor on the defensive end, adding six blocks to Tech's 14-block effort as a team.
"(James) was antsy to play," Waldo said. "She didn't really see the court yesterday, and after she had a great practice earlier today, we just decided we would give it a shot and see what happens. Once she got in there, she just kind of said 'I'm going to be the one. Don't take me out.'"
The offensive rhythm returned somewhat in the third, as TTU killed 12 balls with five errors for a .229 clip, and a frequently targeted Verzani (15 attacks) led the way with six kills in the frame.
Eastern made it tough most of the way, as neither team could build a lead bigger than three points until Tech opened it up late. Trailing 16-15, the Golden Eagles used another 7-1 run to go up 22-17. EIU coach Julie Allen called a timeout in an attempt to curtail the momentum, but the home team had all it needed, as it closed out the set with a 25-22 victory.
The fourth set very much resembled the second, characterized by Tech's inability to put the ball away offensively. EIU seized the lead at 13-12 and was able to hang onto it the rest of the way, prevailing 25-20.
Erica Grant led the Golden Eagles in the fourth set with five kills. The true freshman would total 17 for the match, and put up 11 digs, which made her the only team member to record a double-double in both of this weekend's matches.
Whatever happened between sets, it brought the Golden Eagles back to the dominant form they showcased in the first. With the score tied at two, Tech ran off eight points in a row, putting a stranglehold on it.
With a huge lead and all the momentum, Tech would outscore EIU 5-2 from that point to seal it.
Susie Jeziorowski turned in another terrific all-around performance as well, racking up 50 assists to go with four kills on 11 attacks. She also tallied 15 digs for a double-double.
Kirsten Brugere's 23 digs paced a Tech defense that featured five players in double figures.
The importance of a two-win weekend in conference play cannot be overstated for TTU. Now sitting at 3-5 with eight league matches remaining, there is still plenty of time to get back into the thick of the OVC Tournament conversation.
"Everybody can beat everybody in this league," said Waldo. "There's an absolute log jam right now in the bottom half of the standings, and I don't expect that to change. We're constantly telling our team, 'we're right there, we're right there', 'every win counts'. That stuff is driving them, too. They're excited about that."
Photo by Thomas Corhern