Lady Flames volleyball team claim top seed in Big South
With two road games left to play in their conference schedule, Liberty volleyball had full control of their postseason destiny. The goal was simple: win two games and claim sole possession of the regular season Big South Title.
“Coming into the weekend, we needed to win at least one out of two matches to claim the Big South title for the fifth season in a row. It was in our game plan to win both,” Coach Pinder said.
The weekend road trip featured two contests against North Carolina rivals Gardner-Webb University and University of North Carolina Asheville, teams the Lady Flames had beaten previously this season.
On Friday, the Runnin’ Bulldogs stunned the visiting Flames 3-0. Liberty simply could not find any rhythm. An offense that hit near .300 in the match prior struggled to find kills, hitting only .124. Sophomore Lillie Happel led the Flames with 14 kills.
Defensively, blocking has been one of the greatest strengths all season long, yet Friday the Flames front line managed only two blocks. Three Gardner-Webb hitters tallied at least 10 kills while posting an impressive .368 hitting percentage.
The loss on Friday magnified the importance of Saturday’s game. The loss dropped Liberty into a close second place in the Big South behind Winthrop, making the season finale the deciding factor in tournament seeding.
With a fifth straight Big South regular season title on the line, the Lady Flames played inspired volleyball, rallying behind Happel and junior Loren Thomas. Happel and Thomas combined for 41 kills as Liberty’s offense rebounded from the poor performance the night before.
Thomas registered nine total blocks in addition to her 20 kills, accounting for 25 of Liberty’s points. As a team, the Lady Flames tallied 11.5 blocks. Senior Kelly Haseman’s 28 digs against the Bulldogs moved her career total over the 1900 mark – a milestone only reached by four other players in Big South history.
Despite the big outings of the key veteran players, the match against Asheville was far from easy. The first four sets went back and forth with each squad winning twice.
Liberty won the first and third set each by a score of 25-22, and Asheville won sets two and four by scores of 25-21 and 25-20, respectively.
As it had been all year long, the fifth set belonged to Liberty. For the sixth time in many matches, Liberty emerged victorious, winning the fifth set against Asheville 15-13.
“Friday night, we faced a bit of a setback, losing at Gardner-Webb. We had our backs against the wall tonight. I’m proud of the team and their resolve. As coaches, we talked today about our team’s character being tested tonight. We responded, and pulled out a five-set match at Asheville,” Pinder said. “We won the Big South title for the fifth season in a row, something that no Big South team had ever done. I’m proud of the program being able to put together that kind of consistency over a sustained period of time. I am happy for the seniors and leaders on this team.”
Winning the regular season Big South title gives Liberty the No. 1 seed in the Big South Tournament, set to begin Thursday at Charleston Southern University in North Charleston, S.C. Ironically the team that nearly knocked Liberty off their perch at No. 1 is their first opponent.
“Going into the first round against Gardner-Webb, it’s good that we just played against them on Friday. We know how they like to play, and we’ll watch the film and see how to attack them on Thursday. Our team has prepared all season for this opportunity to compete in the Big South tournament. We’re looking forward to putting together a good week, and potentially making a good run in the tournament,” Pinder said.
The entire Big South tournament will take place this weekend and should the Lady Flames take the division crown, they will be entered into the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship being held in December.