Steady progress

Flames reach semifinals for first time in three years

The Liberty University women’s volleyball team finished the season with an overall record of 16-11 (11-5) after a loss against High Point University in the semifinal match of the Big South Tournament.

According to, the last time the Lady Flames reached the semifinals was three years ago in 2013.

The coaches and players, although disappointed with the end result, said they were thrilled to have accomplished so much with such a young team.

“We did rely on quite a few freshmen playing this year,” Assistant Coach Cassie Crumal said. “Our goal (at the start of the season) was to get this team united.”

Despite being so young, the Lady Flames goals were still set at a high standard. According to senior defensive specialist Michelle Melendez, getting a bye in the Big South Tournament was crucial.

“One of our goals was to be in the top one or two in the Big South,” Melendez said.

During the first half of the season, before conference play, the Lady Flames participated in four events: The Kennesaw State Invitational, the Liberty Invitational, the Davidson Wildcat Classic and the VCU Invitational.

Melendez said one of the most memorable matches this season was the game against the University of North Carolina Asheville.

UP, UP AND AWAY — Junior setter Anna Willey set up the ball for teammates Sydney Morris and Sirena Vorster. Photo Credit: Michela Diddle

UP, UP AND AWAY — Junior setter Anna Willey set up the ball for teammates Sydney Morris and Sirena Vorster. Photo Credit: Michela Diddle

“It was one of our first away games,” Melendez said. “Their crowd is always crazy. It’s always exciting to play in front of people like that.”

The Lady Flames fell behind during the first two sets of that game, losing 25-18 and 25-8.

“The crowd was yelling, ‘Sweep. Sweep. Sweep,’ and we weren’t playing great,” Melendez said.

Despite being under pressure, the Lady Flames came out of the locker room determined to play better. The coach challenged his players, and the players challenged each other to step up their level of play.

“Coming back and winning that game was really hype for us,” Melendez said. “I think that win helped us a lot in our growth (as a team).”

According to freshman outside hitter Leah Clayton, one of the greatest pleasures of volleyball is beating a team despite trash talk.

“(After that win) is when we realized we could deal with anything,” Clayton said. “We had been in every situation, so we knew we could do anything we wanted to.”

Two months later, the Lady Flames were in a similar situation — this time against High Point University for the Big South semifinals in the Vines Center.

“We always say, ‘Strive in five,’” Melendez said. “We love to be in (set) five. Those are the moments where you want to see what you put in come out.”

The Lady Flames barely fell short of a victory against High Point, losing 15-11 in set five after Liberty made a ball-handling error.

“There were definitely tears in the locker room,” Melendez said. “We had prepared all season, so that’s why (losing) was so disappointing.”

High Point University went on to win the Big South Tournament Nov. 20 against No. 1 seeded Radford University.

According to Crumal, the Liberty coaching staff has high expectations for the 2017 season because they are returning the majority of the team.

Crumal said Melendez was irreplaceable, and that her legacy will be the leadership she demonstrated on the court and in the locker room.

Crumal said many of the players are already anxious for next season and are personally working out in preparation for next fall.

“We’re 360 days until the next championship,” Crumal said. “So let’s get after it.”

Smith is a sports reporter.

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