By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – One night after a convincing three-set victory over Tennessee State, the Tennessee Tech volleyball team had a much more difficult time with Belmont on Saturday afternoon, but rose to the occasion when it mattered most to defeat the Bruins, 3-2.
"We are operating on another level right now," said head coach Jeannette Waldo. "Our desire to win is carrying us through."
"Last night's win was clean and we were offensively dominant. Today was a dirty, gritty win, and certain pieces stepped up in big moments. Obviously, it's great to win both, but it says a lot about how far we've come that we can handle both types of situations and come out on top."
In addition to a weekend sweep, the Golden Eagles (11-17, 5-9 OVC) gain another massive victory in the conference standings. The victory gives TTU the outright tiebreaker over Belmont, and puts significant pressure on Eastern Illinois (5-8 OVC) and UT Martin (5-9) – the two teams currently in eighth and ninth place, respectively – to keep pace.
Rachel Thomas posted her second terrific performance of the weekend, and willed her team to victory with a spectacular all-around effort recording 13 kills with two errors on 29 attacks for a .379 hitting percentage. She was also a formidable obstacle at the net for Belmont attackers, as she was a part of nine of Tech's 11 blocks in the match.
"Rachel was sneaky today," said Waldo. "She had to work really hard for her kills. (Yesterday) TSU was focused on stopping our outsides so it was an easier road for her. Today, Belmont focused on stopping our middles, so she had to get more creative and find ways to score."
TTU also received excellent production from its outside hitters for the second straight match, as Ali Verzani led all Golden Eagle scorers with 15 kills, and Erica Grant balanced the floor nicely in contributing 12. Both pins also played large roles in assisting libero Kirsten Brugere on the defensive end, as they piled up 14 digs and 12 digs, respectively, to record double-doubles. Verzani's accuracy was also a key to the match, as she made only two mistakes on 53 attacks for a .245 percentage.
Grant's hot streak could not come at a better time for TTU, as she represents another primetime weapon offensively, and creates openings for other players as she forces defenses to adjust.
"It's huge to have both our outsides showing up to the party," said Waldo of Grant's recent prominence. "We want to put as much stress on our opponent's defense as possible, so if all of our attackers have credibility, the opposing blockers have to make some choices (on who they will cover).
Brugere was another major key for the Golden Eagles. For the umpteenth time in her career, the senior steadied the back line and was a major presence during the entire match, equaling her career-high with 30 digs.
"(Kirsten) was insanely good tonight," said Waldo. She was everywhere! She was able to make the routine digs as pick up the trash coming over. There is no way we stay in some of those rallies without her.
Despite six kills from Thomas, TTU dropped the first set to Belmont, as the Bruins used a 9-0 run to build a sizable 12-4 advantage. Tech would answer with its own 12-4 stretch to tie the set at 16, but Belmont, led by Taylor Floyd, would build the lead back to 23-19 and hold off the Golden Eagles for the 25-22 victory.
A response from Tennessee Tech would come in the second set. With the score tied at 10, TTU ripped off seven points in a row behind production from Grant and Taylor Dorsey. BU would get back to within three at 19-16, but a well-placed timeout from Waldo turned the tide again, as Tech would outscore Belmont 6-3 down the stretch to even the tilt at 1-1.
The third and fourth periods were about as contested as they come.
Tech seemed to be in control of the third, as it held leads of 14-10 and 19-15 during the middle stages. Tech would maintain its four-point lead at 22-18, but the home team was not discouraged, as it rallied to tie it at 24. Then, with all the momentum, BU would be the beneficiary of a TTU attack error, and then punctuate their victory with a Taylor Floyd kill for the 26-24 set win.
The fourth set was the Golden Eagles' turn to snatch victory from the clutches of defeat.
After maintaining the lead by a handful of points most of the way, Tech saw another furious Belmont rally put the Bruins in front 19-18. The two clubs would trade the next few points until back-to-back BU tallies had Tech on the verge of a match loss, 24-22.
A Susie Jeziorowski kill and a Belmont ball handling error brought the score back to even, and then another point each way knotted it at 25. However, Belmont would squander its chance to finish the match in four, as it committed back-to-back attack errors to award Tech the victory and force a fifth set.
The fifth played out like most decisive sets do – tightly, and with very little margin for error.
Both teams alternated scoring, with the biggest lead being two points before Tech scored its eighth to force the midway break. The Golden Eagles would score the next two after the intermission to open a three-point lead at 10-7, which would end up being the difference.
Road sweeps in conference play are hard to come by in any sport, and Waldo is certainly hopeful the momentum will carry over into her team's make-or-break matches next week.
"It will be an odd week for us, playing Wednesday and Saturday, but I like the fact that we can prepare for a match, compete, and then prepare for another single match," said Waldo. "And I don't think I even need to mention that we'll have those matches at home! We are amped to have these big matches at home to end the regular season!"
The first of these important conference showdowns will be with Jacksonville State on Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. in the Hooper Eblen Center.
Photo by Thomas Corhern