By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In the metaphorical sense, it's been quite the journey for Tennessee Tech volleyball in its first year under head coach Jeannette Waldo, and as the regular season nears its end, the Golden Eagles will embark on their final trip in the physical sense: a short jaunt to Nashville for dates with Tennessee State and Belmont.
Tech (9-17, 3-9 OVC) goes back out on the road after coming up short in a pair of home matches to Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky last weekend.
There were some bright spots, such as the play of outside hitter Ali Verzani, who totaled 35 kills in the two matches for a 3.89 per-set average. The redshirt sophomore was Tech's most productive attacker in each match, highlighted by her second career 20-kill outing on Saturday against EKU. The Sioux City, Iowa native was very clean against the Colonels as well, taking a .275 attack percentage on 51 swings.
Freshman middle blocker Taylor Dorsey also shined, gathering a two-match total of 21 kills. Thirteen of those tallies came in Saturday's five-setter with Eastern Kentucky, which left the Birmingham, Ala. native one shy of her single-match best. She was also the most accurate member of Tech's offensive unit all weekend, posting individual hitting percentages of .313 and .300, respectively.
Much like last week's opponents, Tech will be seeing TSU and Belmont for the second time this season, having originally met both of them in Cookeville during the second weekend of the conference season.
Friday's match with Tennessee State will start an hour earlier than the accustomed league schedule, with first serve from the Tigers' Kean Hall at 6 p.m. CT.
TSU (8-15, 6-6) prevailed 3-1 in the first meeting on September 29, in a match much closer than the final count would indicate. Three of the four periods – the three won by TSU – were decided by two points, and two of them required extra points to declare a winner. Additionally, Tech's lone set victory came by a nine-point margin, meaning the Golden Eagles actually outscored TSU over the course of the entire contest, 96-95.
Tennessee State had won three straight entering that first showdown with TTU, but has fallen on hard times since then with only two victories in their last nine.
To say they are hungry for a win is a sizable understatement, as the Tigers now find themselves in seventh place in the OVC standings, and just one game out of eighth, the final qualifying position for the conference tournament.
Julia Pierson, who had a game-high 20 kills against Tech the first time around, leads the Tigers with 3.27 kills per set, which ranks fifth in the Ohio Valley. She's also been TSU's most precise attacker with a .224 hitting percentage for the season. Her 60 blocks elevate her points per set average to 3.88, which is fourth-best in the league.
Rachel Henderson, the other pin in the Tiger offense keeps defenses honest with a 2.95 kills-per-set average, and carries a .191 attack rate for the season.
Libero Gina Rivera Ortiz quarterbacks the defense with nearly five digs per set (4.92, third-best in OVC), and leads a unit that is currently second in the OVC in opponent hitting percentage (.179).
Tech will be going for the season sweep of Belmont when the two clubs meet up on Saturday at 2 p.m. inside the Bruins' Curb Event Center.
While both teams are currently on the outside looking in for the conference tournament, Belmont (4-20, 4-8) sits one game ahead of TTU in the league standings.
A Golden Eagle victory would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker on the Bruins, and would slot them in behind Eastern Illinois, a team Tech also beat in the clubs' only matchup this season.
Coupled with an EIU loss at UT Martin on Friday evening, Tech would be catapulted into ninth place overnight.
A strong nonconference schedule brought an abysmal start to the season for BU, which entered its Sept. 28 match against Tech with a 0-14 record.
On that day, the Bruins gave the impression that things could be different during their conference slate, as they traded the first four sets with Tech before the Golden Eagles prevailed in the fifth, 15-10.
Eastern Kentucky would go into Nashville and become Belmont's first victim eight days later by a score of 3-1.
Then, in an apparent rush of confidence, Belmont toppled conference titan Austin Peay (22-4, 11-2) and handed the Governors their first OVC blemish of the year.
BU lost three in a row to Murray State, Southeast Missouri and UT Martin after its monumental upset, but comes into Saturday's match as the winner of its last two (TSU, 3-2; Eastern Illinois, 3-1).
Alexa Nichols' 2.42 kills per set leads the Bruins for the season, but it is the work of Taylor Floyd, who is averaging 2.87 KPS in conference matches, that has been most responsible for Belmont's 4-3 mark in its last seven tilts.
Photo by Thomas Corhern