By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Just when it looked like the OVC Tournament would be going on without them, the Tennessee Tech volleyball team took a huge step toward changing its destiny with a pair of road wins last weekend, and will look to further improve its postseason chances at home against Jacksonville State on Wednesday evening at 7 p.m.
"Being in contention for a spot in the conference tournament is definitely on the minds of our players," said coach Jeannette Waldo. "As a staff, we are staying consistent in our preparation and trying to stay the course. It's an exciting week, no doubt about it, but it won't do us any favors to change the way we approach matches at this point in the season."
Tech received what was arguably its best overall offensive production over a two-match conference weekend, as it featured three players (Erica Grant, Ali Verzani and Rachel Thomas) with at least 22 kills, and another, Taylor Dorsey, with 18.
All four players found consistency in both matches, as the quartet was responsible for 44 of Tech's 47 kills against Tennessee State, and 47 of its 52 on Saturday vs. Belmont.
"Our confidence is in a good place, but we really had to work for these wins this past week," said head coach Jeannette Waldo. "We know that we earned it by staying in the fight and deciding to play for each other rather than for the ultimate outcome. The way we are communicating and responding to one another on and off of the court is different than when we started the season."
In addition, setter Susie Jeziorowski had the offense clicking along with 10.38 assists per set, and added a team-high four service aces, and senior libero Kirsten Brugere was especially clutch against Belmont, tallying 30 digs.
Brugere's recent stats give her a total of 482 digs for the year, as she tries to become the first Golden Eagle to reach the 500-dig barrier in a season since Courtney Smith's 627 in 2014.
TTU's victories, along with two UT Martin losses and weekend splits for Eastern Illinois and Belmont, have created a four-way tie at 5-9 in the conference. As it stands right now, the team that emerges from that four-headed stalemate will claim the all-important No. 8 spot, and become the final conference tournament entrant.
There are two things going in Tech's favor with regards to breaking the tie: it won its only meeting of the season with EIU, and swept Belmont, meaning the Golden Eagles will get the nod over either of those clubs should they wind up with identical conference records at season's end.
Tech's final match of the season is at home with UT Martin on Saturday, which has the potential to become a pre-tournament elimination showdown.
With this many of its members now performing at a high level, it goes without saying that the team's confidence has received a much-needed jolt, and with two conference matches remaining, Waldo feels great about how her team has come together to perform at its best when it matters most.
"After the Belmont match, we sat in the locker room and talked about the match a bit," she said. "My favorite part of that talk was not what I had to say at all, but what the team said to each other. They took turns giving 'shout-outs' to different players for different things. It was such a genuine moment and it was clear that win or lose, we simply feel closer to our teammates than we ever have. If we didn't have multiple players doing their jbs, that conversation wouldn't have happened."
Jacksonville State (15-13, 7-7 OVC) won the first meeting against Tennessee Tech back on October 2, a 3-1 affair at JSU. TTU struggled to contain the Gamecocks' 6-foot, 2-inch freshman outside hitter Lena Kindermann, who led the way offensively that day with 18 kills.
The big rookie from Neuenkirchen, Landhagan, Germany was honored as the OVC's Newcomer of the Week on Oct. 8, and leads her team in kills per set for the season with 2.67. She has also committed less than 100 errors on more than 600 swings for an attack percentage of .279.
The offensive attack led by Kindermann ranks third in the conference and is very balanced, as Jacksonville State has a total of five attackers with at least 2.12 kills per set: Kaylee Frear, 2.40; Addie Halverson, 2.38; Sadie Anderson, 2.22; and Mackenzie Rombach, 2.12.
Sophomore setter Lexie Libs is another highly-decorated member of the Gamecocks, as she is a two-time winner of the conference's Setter of the Week award, and owns the league's third-best assists per set ratio, 10.41.
"We battled with them the last time we faced off and there is no doubt that this will be a close one again," said Waldo. "Both teams will be fighting for something that will decide how their season will conclude and neither team will go down easily. We didn't have a lot of successful offensive pieces the last time we matched up, and that part of our game has become a lot stronger as of late. We also didn't do a very good job at tracking our attackers to allow our defense to be effective, and that has been a focus for us in recent practices.
"And of course we love playing at home, so we are excited for another opportunity to protect our home court. These are exciting times as we compete for a chance to play in our conference tournament, so we hope to have some noise in the stands."
As mentioned, UT Martin will be Tech's second opponent this week, as the two teams will square off in Cookeville on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Photo by Thomas Corhern