By ROB WITHAM
H-P Sports Correspondent
Randolph-Macon volleyball entered Crenshaw Gymnasium Saturday confident, but knowing they had already survived a five-set war against Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) Championship opponent Washington and Lee in Lexington in October, and, after watching them both at the Emory National Invitational a week earlier in Atlanta and the night before as the Generals won their semifinal match, knowing something else.
“This is a smart team, they really do make the adjustments,” Randolph-Macon head coach Bill Rogers said. “That’s a really good team. We noted how much better they are now than even when we played them. We had to hold on until we found our openings, and we did.”
After falling in sets one and three, having to play from behind most of the afternoon, the Yellow Jackets did find openings as the Generals’ Herculean level of play turned more normal in set four, Randolph-Macon winning 25-20 to force a heartstopping fifth set tiebreaker. The Yellow Jackets prevailed 16-14 to win their third straight ODAC Championship and complete their third year of unbeaten conference play. Randolph-Macon hasn’t lost in ODAC play since the 2014 Championship match.
With a team that features so many offensive options and defensive stalwarts, Rogers and his staff have a myriad of ways to plan for victory. For Saturday’s triumph, they turned to quiet junior Emily Fitzwater. She responded with eleven kills, her highest total of the season, and a .526 attack percentage to add a dangerous scoring option to the one-two punch of Miranda Hall (16 kills) and Rebecca McGilvery, who led Randolph-Macon with 18 kills.
“We ran our offense intentionally through Emily in the middle,” Rogers explained. “We felt like that would be a strong point for us. We’ve had so many good players on the outside and right side get recognition, and they’re all great players, but our middles are our unsung heroes. They block their tails off. We felt like we saw an opening watching them play Virginia Wesleyan (in the semifinal) with our middles, so we ran intentionally through Emily.”
The match began slowly for Randolph-Macon, the Generals starting on a 6-1 run in the first set, enjoying a three to five point lead until a 9-4 Yellow Jacket run tied the set at 20-20. But Washington and Lee used two kills and an ace to finish on a 5-0 run for the 25-20 win.
Set two was a back and forth affair until the Yellow Jackets won ten of fourteen points coming out of a 13-13 tie, taking set two 25-18. Randolph-Macon led the third set at one point 19-14, but the Generals took eleven of the last fourteen points, taking advantage of five Randolph-Macon attack errors to take a 2-1 match lead.
“It’s a long game, more of a marathon, and everyone’s going to have errors,” Hall said. “I think the important thing is to make it up, get the next ball, and move on.”
With their season at stake, the Yellow Jackets responded much like in the second set, taking a lead midway through and building on it, keeping the Generals at bay for a 25-20 victory as the Yellow Jackets enjoyed fourteen kills to Washington and Lee’s eight.
Courtney Berry had two early kills to start the tiebreaker for the Generals. Hall responded with a kill to tie the score at 2-2. Washington and Lee led 6-4, then the Yellow Jackets seized on the Generals’ roughest point of the match, committing three straight errors to take the 7-6 lead, then using kills by McGilvery and Mariah Clark to make it 9-6.
The Generals hung around, fought back and tied the set at eleven. The teams traded the next seven points, including when, on Championship Point at 14-13, Allison Webb earned a kill on an assist by Lee-Davis graduate Anna Soroka to keep hope alive for Washington and Lee. McGilvery sent her 17th kill to the surface to earn a second Championship Point, then her 18th and final kill to seal the championship and send the Yellow Jackets back to the NCAA Division III Women’s Volleyball Championship.
“We learned a lot from playing five sets against them, and a lot watching them play yesterday,” Fitzwater said. “We put in a lot of work studying them, and we played a really intellectual game today.”
Fitzwater’s point is well taken. Volleyball is so much more about making sure the ball is sent over the net successfully, or setting up correctly to either block or to kill. It’s knowing the subtle, but present, idiosyncrasies of your opponent and how to adjust your game just enough to exploit any weakness, even within a single point, where a player can find themselves serving, diving for a dig, jumping for a block, then, an instant later, positioning themselves for the right jump for, hopefully, the successful kill.
It’s constant motion, and, when it works correctly, it’s poetry in motion. Rogers didn’t see a less than good performance by his team, save a few moments early, but credited his opponents for their high level of play in the first three sets.
“I think they (Randolph-Macon) had a pretty good day. That is a good team,” Rogers said of the Generals. “The first three sets, they made almost no unforced errors, and that’s nearly impossible to do.”
There was no panic on the Yellow Jacket bench, reaching down to the experiences of this year, and past seasons, for a veteran squad to keep their cool and be in position to strike when opportunity knocked.
“This team is so seasoned, they tell each other what to do. I just stand around,” Rogers, who was named ODAC Coach of The Year, opined. “I’m not kidding. They are so smart.”
Randolph-Macon hopes to continue good intellectual play as they’ll begin NCAA Tournament play in Owings Mills, Maryland with a first round match against Swarthmore College on Friday at 12:30pm, the first time these two schools have ever met in volleyball.
CHAMPIONSHIP NOTES: Hall, a sophomore from Hanover High School, was named the 2017 ODAC Player of The Year in ceremonies following the championship match. Hall, who won the ODAC Rookie of The Year award in 2016, also made the All-Tournament Team with Fitzwater and McGilvery. Also making the All-Tournament Team was Lauren Stanford, libero for Lynchburg College and Atlee High School graduate.
Joining Hall on the All-ODAC First Team for the 2017 season were teammates Clark, Erin Quinn, and Samantha Sallade. McGilvery earned Second Team All-ODAC honors, as did Lee-Davis graduate, sophomore Rachel Gaston of Bridgewater, and Atlee graduate, senior Kylah Blackmore of Roanoke College.