Lady Flames Volleyball ends season with losing record but top six in Big South
- Lady Flames go 12-19 in head coach Shane Pinder’s last season after 15 years of coaching Liberty women’s volleyball.
- Team focused on encouraging each other and having a positive mindset going into games on and off the court throughout the season.
While the Lady Flames volleyball team finished their 2017 season with a losing record (12-19, 8-8), they showed their strengths in other areas by finishing in the top six in the conference and making it to the Big South Championship tournament.
“Obviously, the wins and loss column was not what we wanted, but we faced some pretty tough competition that got us ready for the conference portion,” assistant coach Cassie Crumal said. “We were able to stay competitive in that and finish in the top six, which was our goal to make the tournament. At the end, we finished strong.”
The Lady Flames were ranked at No. 5 and got their chance in the Big South Championship tournament Nov. 17. During their first round against No. 4 ranked UNC Asheville, the Lady Flames swept the Bulldogs, 3-0.
“I think it helps going into the tournament that it is one game and you are either going or are done,” Sophomore Anna Gragg said. “We did not have the best season so we thought that we might as well give it all we got because it does not matter. Our mindset was just have fun and whatever happens, happens. We had fun and we ended up winning.”
The team’s mindset of relentless perseverance helped propel Liberty to their 3-0 set win over the Bulldogs.
Senior Gabrielle Vess had one of the best games of her season. She scored a match-high of 13 kills at a .500 pace and was named to the Big South Volleyball Championship All-Tournament team.
“I think because I knew that I was a senior and this was my last game, I was the most comfortable,” Vess said. “I just felt free in a sense because I had nothing to lose. It was really encouraging to be recognized, but I think the biggest part was that it was a complete surprise.”
However, after sweeping UNC Asheville, they were defeated in the quarterfinal against No. 1 seed High Point. High Point went on to the championship game where they were stunned by No. 2 Radford.
Crumal said the season had its ups and downs, and it took the team longer than they expected to adjust. There were injuries in the beginning, line changes, and the addition of five freshmen on the team can always cause some hurdles in the beginning.
But the freshmen proved themselves this year, especially with Amaya Williams, who led the team in assists (698).
“She (Williams) is a great athlete,” Crumal said. “When she came in preseason, she competed for the spot. I think to be honest, we were not totally anticipating her to be that starting center. We knew that she had a lot of skill that was going to help her, but I think her approach just coming in every day with consistency was good to see for her.”
Williams was the top freshman setter in the conference. During the Sept. 23 game against Presbyterian, she had 59 assists, which was the most by a Big South setter in a single match this season.
Also in the match against Presbyterian, three players all hit over .500 with 12 or more kills for the first time in Liberty history since 2011. Among the three were Gragg (19 kills, .514), sophomore Casey Goodwin (15 kills, .536) and senior Sirena Vorster (14 kills, .542).
The team is losing three seniors (Vess, Vorster and Anna Willey). Crumal said they are going to need players to step up and fill in those spots.
The team is looking toward the experienced sophomore class, led by Gragg who had a career-high 26 kills during the Nov. 3 match at Presbyterian.
“The mindset that I have always had is that the one thing I can always control is how I can always be encouraging to my teammates and always have a positive attitude,” Gragg said. “Whenever my mindset is focused on that, then my play just follows.”
Gragg was also the first Lady Flame to be named all-conference as both a freshman and sophomore since 2011, and was ranked second in the conference in hitting percentage (.323).
This past year, head coach Shane Pinder became the winningest coach in program history, with 250 wins, however he will not return next season.
“It is tough with coach Pinder giving 15 years of his life as a head coach,” Crumal said. “It is going to be a big change and adjustment. I think for the most part, the girls are handling it well. Obviously, there is some disappointment and we are all trying to manage it emotionally.”
The girls are handling it well, and according to Gragg, they are not too worried about anything.
“I think it is frustrating, but we have other things that our minds are occupied with right now,” Gragg said. “There is not anything that we are doing with coaches specifically because we are in our offseason now, so I think it’s just about taking care of the final things before we go to break.”