The Gannon University women’s volleyball team made history on Nov. 17 as it became the first team in the program’s history to win a conference championship.
The road to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title was not easy, as both the semifinal and championship matches went the distance, with the Knights emerging as the victors in both five-set matches, defeating Slippery Rock University on Nov. 15 and Lock Haven University on Nov. 17.
After falling to 0-2 during the Lock Haven match, coach Matt Darling said the team’s seniors knew they needed to defend their home court.
“When I entered the huddle, the seniors were already saying, ‘We’re coming back to win this match,’” he said. “The only thing I added was, ‘The only thing we haven’t done this year is come back from an 0-2 deficit to win. So why not do it?’”
The Knights had previously lost the only other two five-set matches they had played this season, but after defeating Slippery Rock in five only two days before, they were up to the task of playing from behind.
Darling said that a shift in momentum was all the team would need to come storming back and take the match and the PSAC title. He said that this shift, along with playing better defense, were key factors in turning things around in the third set, where the team gained and maintained control for the duration of the match.
Darling said both benefitted Lock Haven in the first two sets.
“I knew we’d be fine if we could just get some momentum, he said.”
Senior outside hitters Morgan Reineke and Lauren Sazama led the team’s offensive effort with 20 and 19 kills, respectively, while sophomore libero Taryn Graham led in digs with 19. Megan Wendel led both teams in assists with 48.
The players and coaches accepted their awards in front of a crowd of 584 in the Hammermill Center, and received additional honors even after the awards ceremony had ended.
Sazama was named to the AVCA All-Atlantic Region first team, while Wendel collected an honorable mention. Darling was also named AVCA Atlantic Region Coach of the Year, as well as PSAC Western Division Coach of the Year.
Darling said that despite the PSAC championship and the rest of the awards that came along with it, the team is not about to become complacent.
“Because we still have more volleyball ahead of us, I don’t know if I’ve thought that much about what the conference championship means,” he said. “When we look back on it after the season, it will probably mean a great deal to us, especially to the three seniors, who have worked hard for four years and have had to put up with me for hundreds of practices.”
The conference championship catapulted the Knights directly into the NCAA tournament, where, as the No. 2 seed, will face rival Mercyhurst University (No. 7) for the fourth time this season. Gannon holds the edge in matches won with a 2-1 mark.
“We know that it will be tough to beat them a third time, but we’re focusing on the same things that helped us win the last two matchups – controlling the ball and taking advantage of any opportunities we get to score,” Darling said.
The rivalry match slated for the first round of the NCAA tournament will take place Thursday at host and No. 1 seed Wheeling Jesuit University.
“It’s going to be a tough match,” Darling said, “but I think we’ll be ready to compete hard. Rivalry games are always intense.”