FAIRMONT — Over the last several years, much of the culture around Fairmont State athletics has changed.
Upgraded facilities and many new coaches have brought about new excitement surrounding the Fighting Falcons' programs, and the results have shown on the scoreboard and in the win column.
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Coach Jerrod Calhoun led his men's basketball team to the national title game; coach Jason Woodman took the FSU football team to the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades; and coach Steve McDonald took the FSU women's basketball team to the brink of an MEC title -- all within the last year.
The success of Fairmont State athletics isn't limited to football and basketball, either, as coach Courtney Materazzi and the Fairmont State volleyball team joined in the fun last season, too, reaching the postseason for the first time as an NCAA program.
Fairmont State earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Regional in Wheeling, losing to Gannon, 3-2, in the opening round.
"That was a great feeling," junior libero Megan Clerico said. "It was even better that we made it to five games and we had a chance to win. It just makes me more excited for this year."
The season didn't end the way the Falcons wanted it to with a first-round postseason loss, but it served as motivation coming into this season, and the team hopes to keep that momentum going.
"The fact that we had the opportunity to make it to the postseason last year was really inspirational for us," senior right side hitter Mackenzie Harrison said. "We were able to finally achieve that goal, and we didn't get the outcome that we wanted."
Now, the Fighting Falcons are back for 2017 seeking a greater outcome than last season with high expectations heading into Friday's season-opening tournament in Edinboro, Pennsylvania.
"(Expectations) are high," Materazzi said. "We're coming off of a fun year as far as getting the bid to the NCAA tournament. So we look to have that be a repeat, and not a fluke that happens every 17 years."
This year's roster features 13 returners from a year ago, led by Harrison, a 2016 All-America honorable mention, and Clerico, who sets the tone of the team's defense.
Harrison said the team's goals range from making it to regionals, hosting the MEC Tournament, and defeating their biggest rival, Wheeling Jesuit.
In order to do so, FSU will have to rely on the key to last year's success -- chemistry, trust and teamwork.
"I know that a huge thing for me is working for my teammates and trusting that they're putting in the same intent and effort that I'm putting in," Clerico said.
Harrison said that the girls on the team are close both on the court and off the court, and the culture around the team is one of a family that is all out to achieve the same goal.
Team chemistry is important in all sports, and volleyball is no different, with each individual player moving as part of a cohesive unit.
"I have to know if Kenzie is ready to hit a ball that I set to her, or if (senior setter Jessica Furda) is going to set a ball I pass to her," Clerico said. "You have to trust those players, too, to make sure that they're going to put that ball away and put the ball in the corner and score points for us."
As the anchor of the back line a year ago, Clerico had 584 digs on the season to lead the team. Many of those digs wound up bouncing off the hands of Furda, who led the team with 1,290 assists last season.
The recipient of a majority of Furda's sets was Harrison, who led the team with 581 kills, the second-most in the country last season and the second-best mark in school history.
Harrison has proven she has the talent to to score points for her team, and she knows she has teammates who can put her in the position to do so.
"I think trust is the most important thing I can have in my teammates," Harrison said. "I love putting down the ball, but sometimes I get blocked, and I just have to know that they're going to be there to cover me and pick me back up.
"If any of us are having a bad game, I know that our teammates will be able to push us further. I think everybody has that confidence to want to be a part of what we have."
Now, it's time to put that trust and confidence to work in the two-day, five-team tournament that includes Walsh, Bellarmine, Lock Haven and Saint Rose.
"We've been waiting weeks for this," Harrison said. "It's great playing against your own team and it's great knowing people's tendencies, now that we're going into some games, I'm so excited to get the season started."
Following a Sept. 8-9 tournament in California, Pennsylvania, and a Sept. 15-16 tournament in Wheeling, Fairmont State will host its first home match at 6 p.m. Sept. 22 against West Liberty.
Part of the overall culture change at Fairmont State has been support of the fans and community, and the FSU volleyball team believes that it can put on an entertaining show that fans will want to attend.
"It's 15 really talented, hard-working girls, and volleyball is a fun sport," Materazzi said. "We're diving all over the place. Our bodies are secondary -- anything to get that ball off. We play really well together. There's a good energy and a lot of heart."
"I think it's a fun, exciting game," Harrison added. "There can be intense moments, and there can be moments where there are just unbelievable, hits and shots. It's a fast-paced game and I like to think our pace is fast.
"It's entertaining to watch and listen to. And we're pretty good."
Whether it's fellow FSU athletes, faculty or community members, the team appreciates the support, Clerico said, and they hope fans will come out once their home season begins.
"Everything they do for us, and every time they come to support us -- it really means a lot," Clerico said.
This article is written by Sean McNamara from Times West Virginian, Fairmont and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.