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Liberty Volleyball: 2011 Season in Review
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The Liberty volleyball team entered the 2011 season looking to finish what it started, after coming up short in the Big South final the past two seasons. The Lady Flames went on to claim their conference-record sixth Big South Tournament championship, and first since 2008.
The 2011 Lady Flames posted a 20-13 record, going 12-2 in Big South matches to earn a tie for their conference-record fifth straight regular-season title. Liberty also posted 20 wins for the fifth year in a row.
"There were two things that the team wanted to really focus on this season, and one was building trust in each other, and carry that into the ability to play for each other each and every day," Eighth-year head coach Shane Pinder said. "The second thing that they wanted to do was to be known by finishing this year."
Appearing in the Big South Volleyball Championship final for the fifth year in a row, Liberty defeated Radford, 3-0, to claim the tournament title for the first time since the 2011 seniors were freshmen.
Liberty advanced to the NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship, facing No. 8 seed and four-time defending national champion Penn State in the first round. The Lady Flames battled the Nittany Lions before falling in three sets.
The Lady Flames featured a young roster, with five out of the seven starters being freshmen or sophomores. Freshmen Gabrielle Shipe, Ansley Gebben and Melissa Racz were all regular starters this season.
The 2011 campaign opened in Athens, Ga., at the Hotel Indigo Bulldog Invitational. The Lady Flames fell to the host institution Georgia, along with Big 12 member Kansas, before sweeping Florida A&M, 3-0, to earn the team's first win of the season.
During the following week, Liberty faced three teams that went on to compete in the 2011 NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship. The Lady Flames faced then-No. 16 Oregon on Aug. 31 at American University in Washington, D.C., falling 3-0 to the Ducks.
Liberty then competed in an invitational at Western Michigan. The Lady Flames were swept by the host Broncos on Sept. 3, and then won set three in a 3-1 loss against North Carolina later that same day. In fact, Liberty was the only team at the invitational to win a set from the Tar Heels.
The team began its home schedule Sept. 9-10 by hosting the 2011 Liberty Invitational presented by Pepsi. Liberty won all nine sets that it played, downing CSU Bakersfield to claim their first tournament title of the season. Lillie Happel was named tournament MVP, and Jade Craycraft joined her on the all-tournament team.
The Lady Flames went 10-1 at home during the season, including a 7-0 mark against Big South opponents, running their conference home winning streak to 14 matches.
Liberty closed out its regular-season tournament play with an appearance in an invitational at N.C. State on Sept. 16-17. Following losses to the host Wolfpack and Towson, the Lady Flames hit a program-record .484 in a 3-0 sweep of The Citadel.
The Lady Flames entered conference play with a 5-9 overall record, following a 3-1 loss at James Madison on Sept. 20. After the setback, the team went 15-4 the rest of the way, including an 11-1 stretch entering the NCAA Tournament.
Liberty began Big South play with a win for the seventh year in a row. The Lady Flames earned a 3-2 victory at Radford, posting a program rally-scoring-record 20.5 team blocks. Loren Thomas posted 12 blocks, while Craycraft added 10, becoming the first Liberty teammates in rally scoring history with 10 blocks in the same match.
Liberty went 6-0 in five set matches this season. Fittingly, the Lady Flames conference opener and conference regular-season finale each ended in 3-2 Liberty victories. The team has won its last 14 five-set matches against conference teams.
The Lady Flames won their conference home opener, Sept. 30 versus UNC Asheville, and downed Gardner-Webb in five sets the next day.
Liberty suffered its first conference loss on Oct. 7, falling, 3-0, at High Point. The Lady Flames answered the loss by winning their next eight conference matches. The eight-match conference winning streak began with a 3-0 sweep at Campbell, during which Kelly Haseman became Liberty's all-time digs leader.
VCU handed the Lady Flames their only home loss this season, earning a straight-sets win on Oct. 11. Liberty responded by going on a seven-match winning streak, the team's best of the campaign.
Liberty won both matches during a home weekend series, defeating Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern. Those two victories set up a matchup for first place in the Big South, as both Liberty and Winthrop entered their Oct. 21 match at 6-1 in conference play.
The Lady Flames posted a 25-12 win over the home-standing Eagles in set one, but the match went five sets, with Liberty winning set five, 15-12, to gain the tie-breaker over Winthrop.
After a 3-0 win over Presbyterian College, Liberty posted a 3-2 come-from-behind win over Radford (Oct. 28). Trailing, 2-0, the Lady Flames rallied for the victory. During its next match, Pinder's squad won another 3-2 match, staving off match point to defeat Campbell on Nov. 4.
Liberty sent its four seniors, Courtney Boggs, Courtney Cooper, Kelly Haseman and Rebecca Warren, out with a win, claiming a 3-0 victory over High Point on Senior Day, Nov. 5.
Gardner-Webb swept Liberty, 3-0, on Nov. 11 in Boiling Springs, N.C., putting the Lady Flames one-half match behind Winthrop for the conference lead with one match remaining. On the next night, trailing 11-8 during the fifth set at UNC Asheville, the Lady Flames rallied to earn a 15-13 set-five victory. With the win, Liberty kept its streak alive of five straight Big South regular season championships and gained the No. 1 seed for the Big South Championship.
For the first time since 1999, the Big South Volleyball Championship was held in Charleston, S.C. from Nov. 17-20. Liberty won its opening-round match against Gardner-Webb, 3-1, before sweeping UNC Asheville to earn a spot in the final. In a near-repeat of the 1999 final, Liberty defeated Radford, 3-0, to earn their sixth Big South title and advance to the NCAA Women's Volleyball Championship.
Thomas had a breakout year, setting the Liberty rally-scoring record with 155 blocks, a total that led the Big South and ranks second all-time at Liberty. Thomas, the Big South Tournament MVP and a first-team all-conference selection, also posted a program rally-scoring-record 13 blocks, Oct. 21 at Winthrop.
Thomas was joined on the Big South All-Tournament team by Lillie Happel and Kelly Haseman.
Happel led the Lady Flames with 3.38 kills per set, ranking among the league leaders. She was named to the Big South All-Conference first team after an all-freshman team mention in 2010. Happel came through with 21 kills and a career-high 23 digs in Liberty's regular-season-finale win at UNC Asheville.
Haseman, a second-team all-conference selection, capped off a tremendous career with an 18-dig performance in the NCAA Tournament's first round that drew high praise from opponent Penn State. She finished her career with 1,989 career digs, good for fourth in conference history.
Craycraft followed up her 2010 Big South Freshman of the Year campaign by earning second-team all-conference mention for the second season in a row. A versatile setter, she recorded eight double-doubles, including the first assists-blocks double-double in Liberty's rally-scoring history.
"To see them come through the year and put together another 20-win season, and then to back that up with regular-season and tournament championships, it was a great year," Pinder said. "Obviously, I'm really excited about where the program is, and for the future of the program."