By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – What a difference a day can make.
Less than 24 hours after one of its most difficult matches of the season, Tennessee Tech volleyball rebounded with a tremendous effort Saturday against OVC leader Austin Peay, as TTU took the Governors to the brink of suffering their first home loss of the season.
Tech (9-15, 3-6) was clearly not intimidated by its highly-decorated opponent, as it outplayed Austin Peay in the first two sets, and earned a 2-0 match lead in the process. The momentum shifted, however, as the Govs took sets three and four, and then sealed it in the fifth.
"It's definitely a frustrating feeling being up 2-0 on the top team in the conference and then not being able to close it out," said head coach Jeannette Waldo. "But, (Austin Peay) stepped up, which is what good teams do when they're trailing. We made errors late in the match and they continued to play clean volleyball, and that was the difference.
After struggling mightily on Friday, middle blockers Rachel Thomas and Taylor Dorsey returned to form with excellent performances in Saturday's tilt, and helped carry the Golden Eagle offense with 17 kills and 12 kills, respectively.
Maybe even more important was their accuracy in putting the ball away. Thomas and Dorsey combined for just seven errors on 65 total attacks, which equated to individual hitting percentages of .351 and .321, respectively.
It was the third-highest kill total for Thomas this season, and her highest since her career-high 21-kill performance at Southeast Missouri on October 6. The .351 percentage boosts her season average to .266, and will undoubtedly improve her 10th-place position in the category in the OVC.
Dorsey's 12 kills ties her second-best single-game output in her budding Tech career, and marks the fourth time she has recorded more than 10 kills in a match.
"Our middles tried to pull all of the offensive weight today, said head coach Jeannette Waldo. "Our (outside hitters) had a hard time scoring, so we forced the ball to the middle when we could."
As Waldo mentioned, AP was successful at limiting the success of Tech's outside hitters, but Ali Verzani and Erica Grant were still able to turn in respectable stat lines for the day. Verzani recorded her 10th double-double with 14 kills and 19 digs, and Grant nearly accomplished the same feat with nine kills and 15 digs.
Susie Jeziorowski tallied 46 assists, giving her 10 matches with 45 or more for the season.
After both teams felt each other out over the first few points, Tech grabbed the lead at 7-6 in the first set, and never allowed AP to regain the momentum save for one tie score at 17-17.
Grant's five kills led the way offensively, but the difference in the tight first stanza was the net defense. Tech recorded four blocks – three by Thomas – to Austin Peay's zero, en route to a 27-25 victory.
The second set was tight as well, but Tech was clearly the cleaner team, posting a .220 hitting percentage to the Governors' .088.
The Golden Eagles got balanced scoring in the second, as Thomas paced them with five kills, while Verzani, Dorsey and Grant each contributed three.
The Govs threatened to take the second set when it opened a 19-15 lead late, but a determined Tech team bounced back to tie it at 20, and then used two kills from Thomas to mount the final 5-2 run for another set victory.
Austin Peay came back with a statement of its own in the third set to make the match 2-1, which set up a pivotal fourth segment for both teams.
With the score 11-11 in the fourth, AP started to ratchet up its offense and opened a 19-14 advantage. Tech would counter as it closed to back within a point at 21-20, but could not find the equalizer down the stretch.
Thomas was the dynamic factor in Tech's comeback bid in the fourth with seven kills.
Austin Peay landed the first punch in the decisive fifth set, as it held leads of 5-1 and 7-2 early on. Then, four straight Tech kills made it 7-6 and changed the complexion of the set momentarily, but TTU errors at inopportune times were ultimately the difference, as Austin Peay closed on an 8-2 run to eek out a 3-2 match win.
While Waldo certainly felt her team missed an opportunity for a statement victory on the road, she also thought it learned a lot about itself in another narrow defeat.
"We can beat anyone if we are working on all cylinders," she said. "We need to continue to play with drive and heart to execute our best level of volleyball possible."
TTU will be back at home for two matches next weekend as it prepares to take on Morehead State at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 26, followed by a date with Eastern Kentucky on Saturday at 2.
Photo by Thomas Corhern