Fort Myers, Fla. - After waiting 18 years for a chance to play for a conference championship, the past week probably felt like an eternity for the Hatters.
After two missed opportunities in five-set matches to clinch a postseason berth, the Stetson University volleyball team got the job done in four sets on Saturday, defeating host Florida Gulf Coast 3-1 (25-20, 25-13, 17-25, 25-23) to secure a spot in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament for the first time since 1995.
“It is so unbelievably exciting to have the opportunity to continue to play with this team and go for a conference championship,” senior Ellen Hawks said. “We know this program hasn’t been to postseason play for a really long time, so it is crazy exciting be part of the team that makes it there.”
Getting there was no easy task for the Hatters (18-13, 9-7 A-Sun) on Saturday. Stetson led 2-0 at intermission, but FGCU (12-17, 8-8) won the third set and led the fourth set 21-20, threatening to send the match to a decisive fifth set yet again for the Hatters. However, middle blockers Hawks and Erika White each recorded a kill and three Eagle attack errors sealed the victory for Stetson.
“It feels so amazing to finally secure this bid,” senior Kaley Melville said. “I was just really proud of our team because the last couple of games we lost some really close matches where it has come down to a few points. We decided we needed to figure out how to close out these tight matches because come tournament time, all the matches are going to be close. We are going to be playing great teams every single game.”
The Hatters hit .307 for the match and received double-digit kill totals from Cailyn Prewitt (13), Melville (12), and Hawks (11).
“I am really thrilled for the girls that they were able to go out there and earn it today against a good Florida Gulf Coast team that also played well and battled hard, and really forced us to play our best,” Stetson head coach Tim Loesch said. “The girls came through under pressure. They are just really happy and I am happy for them.”
Stetson rebounded from tough five-set losses to ETSU last Saturday and UNF on the road on Tuesday.
“We really wanted to finish it in that fourth set,” Hawks said. “Even though we are not worried about closing matches out, and we proved earlier in the season that we can win fifth-set games, we didn’t want to take (Saturday’s match) to five. We put the pedal to the metal and really pushed hard for those last few points. I remember everyone going crazy when we got the win.”
“The girls played confidently and aggressively down the stretch, and executed the game plan well,” Loesch said. “We were real poised and real steady. Outside of one little blip in the third set, the girls played great all day.”
Setter Kayla Weller registered 51 assists while running the offense, and Alexa Drost (25 digs) and Melville (15 digs) helped secure the defense. Weller (.667), Prewitt (.423) and White (.412) all hit over .400 for the match.
The Hatters still have two regular season matches remaining, beginning next Friday at Lipscomb. First serve is set for 7:30 p.m. in match broadcast live on ESPN3. Stetson will finish the regular season at Northern Kentucky at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
“It is very exciting to clinch but it is not over yet,” Hawks said. “We wanted to secure that so that we can take the next step. That is our big goal as a team. We wanted to do something Stetson hasn’t done in a long time, and it was really good to see that come together. We know we are one step closer to our ultimate goal of a conference championship.”
The Atlantic Sun Championship will be held Nov. 21-23 at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga. The Hatters will either be the no. 4 seed or the no. 5 seed in the single elimination tournament.
Note: Kayla Weller broke the all-time school single-season assists record, surpassing Tanner Kennedy, who had 1143 in 2002. Weller has gone over 50+ assists seven times this season.