A USC Aiken volleyball program that has taken progressively bigger steps over the last four seasons made its largest leap yet over the weekend by capturing the Southeast Region championship at the Convocation Center. Now, the Pacers are off to South Dakota to continue their campaign in the Elite Eight.
Seventh-seeded USCA (31-4) will take the court at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Sioux Falls' Sanford Pentagon. The Pacers' opponent will actually be a familiar foe, a second-seeded Palm Beach Atlantic program that was once a regular visitor to the Convocation Center for the USC Aiken Invitational.
That familiarity could give the Pacers some confidence in their first-ever appearance at this stage, as could USCA's four-set victory last year in the teams' most recent meeting -- the Sailfish had won the previous four matchups. It may not be necessary, though, given the level of confidence the Pacers showed during their region championship run.
"That should give our girls a little bit of confidence going into it, but I mean, I think they're pretty high on life right now and feel pretty confident," said USCA head coach Glenn Cox. "We're going to go to battle and go do what we do."
Palm Beach Atlantic (31-3) enters the Elite Eight on a 31-match winning streak after dropping its first three matches of the season at Lewis University's Flyer Festival. The Sailfish were the national runner-up last year, and they're back at this stage again after winning the South Region for the second year in a row.
The Sailfish are hitting .317 in the NCAA Tournament, second among all teams who qualified. They're led by 6-foot-2 middle blocker Sarah Ragland, who's hitting a tournament-high .557 and has 14 blocks. Emma Ballantyne, a 6-footer in the middle, is hitting .442 for the tournament and has blocked 13 shots. Ally Rohn's seven aces are tops for the tournament, and Susie Forbes' 62 digs rank sixth. Cox described the Sailfish as a team with size and athleticism, and South Region Coach of the Year Bob White is an old friend who brings in a lot of talent.
"They do have a lot of weapons. They always have," said Cox. "But so do we. So we'll see if we can get the right matchups and go out there and play a little bit cleaner than they do. That's really the difference at this level. It's anybody's game now. There's eight teams that on any given day can beat each other out there, and we're going to go see if we can be the ones to do the beating."
USCA can counter with plenty of weapons of its own, and Cox pointed out that the Pacers are a hard team to scout because they have so many different players who are producing offensively; after all, they were able to turn to freshman middle Christine Carroll on region championship point. That offensive diversity makes them a tough out, and their elite passing and defense are the foundation of the group.
The Pacers are hitting .235 for the tournament, 10th among 63 ranked, while holding opponents to a .122 mark which ranks sixth. The team's 14.75 assists per set rank third, and USCA's 22.67 digs per set are seventh. The Pacers have more total assists (177) and kills (180) than anyone in the tournament.
Emily Teelon leads everyone in the NCAA Tournament with 153 assists, and her six aces rank fourth. Danielle Mercer has the third-most digs with 73. Taylor Stratton has the fourth-most kills with 51; Julia Forster is just one kill behind, and having both hitters back healthy for the regional was a major boost. Kassy Johannsen's 12 blocks rank 10th.
To reach this stage, USCA had to clear a mental hurdle by overcoming the nerves that come with playing in the national tournament. Cox said there's no way to train for that; a team just has to be there and get used to it. He said that was a big difference between USCA and Queens in the regional final, and harnessing that energy and flipping the switch allowed the Pacers to overcome a two-sets-to-none deficit to advance to Sioux Falls.
This year is USCA's third in a row in the national tournament, but the Pacers' win over Barton on Friday in the first round was the first NCAA Tournament win in program history. Third-seeded USCA was swept at Wingate in the first round by Carson-Newman two years ago, and last year the top-seeded Pacers were swept at home by Erskine.
Better late than never, the Pacers won all three of their matches at the regional, and those were the product of some huge mental strides Cox has seen his team make. The current senior class has been making those steps ever since their freshman campaign. They started gaining confidence when they pulled two upsets to reach the Peach Belt Conference final. As sophomores, they advanced to the national tournament. As juniors, they hosted as the region's top team. Now, they're among the nation's elite.
"To see the program grow from a .500 program to a 31-4 program has been unbelievable, being there from start to finish and seeing what we could accomplish with a lot of the core girls," senior Shawn Hotson said following Sunday's championship win. "After last year, when we lost (All-American Ashley Diedrich), we weren't really sure how we were going to do this year. We came back, and we've had so many people step up from seniors that have been here and then to freshmen. We've had so many people replace what we had lost and stepped up even more."
"From where we started our freshman year to where we are now, it's a feeling that you can't describe," Stratton added. "My freshman year, we were excited to make the finals of the conference tournament. Now, we're like, 'We just won the region' as seniors. It's so -- it's funny, because it's still us, but it's a completely different team and everything."
Cox said he's tried to essentially brainwash the team into believing they're supposed to be winning, and that showed over the weekend. Stratton said following Saturday's match that they felt like they would beat Armstrong State in the semifinals, and that belief only grew after USCA took the first two sets. And Hotson told Stratton on Sunday after the Pacers lost the first two sets to Queens that they weren't going down without a fight.
"It's going to be a tough tournament. ... This is the eight best teams in the country," Cox said. "We're happy to be there, but we also know that we want to go -- we feel like our region really doesn't get any national respect. Nobody from our region has really gone out there and put on a show. We're the seventh seed. Hey, it's nice; we're the underdog again. We're going to go out there and battle and see what we can do."