From the very start of the season, Stetson University senior Kaley Melville has been counting down the matches remaining in her career. She kept track by drawing a large number on her left arm and an inspirational quote on her right arm, a visual reminder of how much each contest meant to her.
Now that the countdown has reached zero and the Hatters are set to begin their first postseason action in 18 years, what will Melville put on her arm come Thursday?
"I have actually thought about that a lot and I am not really sure what I am going to do," Melville said. "I might put our team motto, or maybe 'Championship'. All I know is that this is an incredible opportunity for us and I just want want us to seize the day."
The fifth-seeded Hatters (18-15) are set to face the fourth-seeded Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (13-19) in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Sun Conference Volleyball Championship Thursday at 5 p.m. at the KSU Convocation Center in Kennesaw, Ga. The semifinals will be contested Friday and the championship on Saturday, with the winner earning the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Every game of the championship will be broadcast live on ESPN3.com, and on the WatchESPN App for mobile devices.
Many of the freshmen on this year's team were less than a year old when Stetson made its last postseason appearance in 1995, when the league was known as the Trans America Athletic Conference. Many student-athletes have come through the program since then, but this year's squad made the breakthrough as they have in other areas all season long.
“It’s definitely something to talk about, to be excited about, and it is great for the program and the school," Loesch said. "For these girls, this is their time. Whether they are freshmen or seniors, they have a small window to play in, so I am just happy that they get to experience it together and it will be something for next year’s team to shoot for.
"It is a high point for the program and something that I am proud of this team for working hard toward, but we are not done with our goals yet," Loesch added. "We have set our goals higher, so we are going to go after those and strive to keep playing as long as we can together.”
The Hatters went 9-9 in the regular season, and fared well against many of their fellow tournament participants. Stetson defeated FGCU on Nov. 9, Kennesaw State on Sept. 28, and regular season co-champion Jacksonville on Sept. 21. Stetson also took ETSU to five sets back on Nov. 2.
“Performing well at the beginning of the season and playing against these top conference teams was really huge for us," senior Ellen Hawks said. "We know that we can compete and there isn’t a team here that we haven’t taken a set off of at one point. That is really exciting and means that they have to respect us as a team coming in and it means that we know we can compete with anyone.”
The Hatters and Eagles split their two regular season meetings, with each team winning on its opponent's home court. Loesch says if the Hatters are to advance past the quarterfinals, they need play with confidence and fight for every point.
"One of our keys is to be aggressive in all facets of the game, from serving to passing, setting, attacking and blocking," Loesch said. "We want the girls to just go for it, show everybody what we’ve been working on all year and perform even better at the end of the season than we did during the regular season.”
The winner of the Stetson-FGCU match will advance to play top-seeded Jacksonville at 5 p.m. Friday, and that winner will move on the championship match at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
What will Stetson need to do to win three times in three days?
“We need to play together as one," Hawks said. "That is what this whole season has been about and if we go out and play our game, Stetson volleyball as one, we are unstoppable. That is really what we are focused on, coming together as a team and keeping that unity, keeping that mindset of playing our game and our volleyball. If we do that, then we are coming home with a championship."