Flames face new foes, finish fifth at Tennessee tournament
March 2, 2013 | Knoxville, Tenn.
Competing in the South Region of the Eastern International Volleyball Association, Liberty University's men's volleyball team regularly faces two teams ranked in the top 10 in the nation — Virginia Tech (fifth) and James Madison (ninth) — and two others (Florida, 17th; N.C. State, 31st) in the top 35.
"The truth of the matter is we play in probably the hardest conference in the country, EIVA, Division I," Flames head coach Bryan Rigg said of the eight-team league. "When we get out of our conference, we see where we stand" against clubs from other regions.
Liberty had such an opportunity on Saturday when it traveled to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for the 12-team Bud Fields Classic tournament, featuring teams mostly from the Mountain International Volleyball Association. The Flames went 3-2 and came in fifth place after falling to Florida State in the quarterfinals.
"We all agreed, it was the best tournament we've had this year," Rigg said after Monday's early-morning practice. "We had never played against any of these teams before and we finished right in the middle of the pack."
That was an improvement from Liberty's two previous tournaments at JMU and N.C. State, where the Flames finished 2-6 and 0-4, respectively.
Liberty bounced back from an opening 25-21, 25-23 loss to a USA Volleyball Club national team from Tennessee to defeat Georgia Tech (25-21, 25-17) and Birmingham-Southern (25-14, 25-16) and finish second in its four-team pool.
The Flames were seeded sixth for the playoffs and dominated host Tennessee, 25-15, 25-24, in the first round.
"The bleachers were full for that one, and we won pretty handily," Rigg said. "There was no doubt. We had our ups and downs, and both times the games were tied at 12, but both times, we were able to finish very well."
Liberty used a seven-point service run by freshman libero Josiah Williams to gain separation in the first game, when Ethan Chase was the offensive standout at the net. He had nine kills in 14 attempts for the match, finishing off sets from Isaac Zywczok, who distributed 29 assists in those two games.
But FSU, seeded third going into the tournament, proved to be too tall of a test in the quarterfinal round, eliminating Liberty, 25-21, 25-18.
"They were a very, very good team," Rigg said.
The Flames actually led for much of both games, including by a 17-13 margin in the first, but both times, the Seminoles rallied from behind for the victory.
"They have two very good outside hitters and it was pretty much their game plan, to feed their outside hitters," Rigg said.
Senior right-side hitter Ethan Chase had five blocks against FSU.
"That was a good indicator," Rigg said. "They were hitting well and he was blocking well. They just won the battle on that one."
In pool play, against the USA Volleyball team, which had won the tournament the last two years, sophomore outside hitter Derek Abildness spiked a team-high eight kills in 16 attempts and freshman middle blocker Sam Eisbrenner added four kills in nine attempts.
Senior outside hitter Jamie Stedjan spiked seven kills in 13 attempts against Georgia Tech, when Chase had 25 assists, Williams totaled 11 digs, and Sam Eisbrenner stuffed four blocks.
Then, against Birmingham-Southern, left-handed right-side hitter Addison Eshleman was the standout with seven kills in 12 attempts and Williams distributed 13 assists.
For the tournament, Williams was the Flames' most valuable player, averaging eight digs per match.
"He was a stud throughout the day," Rigg said. "He's our libero. They kept hitting at him and hitting at him and he put himself in the right spot. He also led us with five service aces on the day."
Abildness was the team's leader in kills with 33 and Eisbrenner had a team-high kill percentage of .313 (15 for 32). Zywczok totaled 84 assists, averaging 8.4 per game.
Though it already has qualified for the April 3 national tournament in Dallas, where it will compete in the Division I-AA bracket, Liberty has two big tournaments on tap later this month. It will host the EIVA conference tournament in the new Schilling Center on March 23 before traveling to Maryland to compete in the East Coast Championships on March 29.
"We're expecting 17 teams, everyone in South Region, Division I and Division II," Rigg said of the EIVA event, noting the Flames may be one of the lowest seeded DI teams in the field but will have a huge home-court advantage. "We will be ready for the tournament and I do expect us to finish well. It's amazing how razor thin these margins are. We've been losing by two or three points per game against some of these nationally ranked teams. Anything could happen on March 23. (Win or lose), being able to play these big schools will put us in good standing for nationals."