East Carolina volleyball will start conference play as the only undefeated team in the American Athletic Conference, with its first game on the road against Southern Methodist University tonight.
The Pirates (10-0) set a program record with 10 straight wins, remaining undefeated through non-conference play. ECU did not play too many heavy hitters so far this season and playing in the AAC will prove to be a whole new barrier to break through.
“It’s going to be tough,” said head coach Julie Torbett. “The American Athletic Conference is a really good volleyball conference and we’re going to step up to a whole new level of play in the [conference] play. Our girls treat those matches a little more seriously.”
Another factor that has made this win streak even more of an accomplishment is due to the fact that the Pirate’s first 12 games this season are on the road. ECU will not have its first home game until September 30, and the season started in August.
The first two AAC games will also be on the road in Dallas (SMU) and Oklahoma (Tulsa).
“We’ve got to go out on the road again,” said Torbett. “We’ve proved that we can handle playing two games a week on the road.”
Even with the perfect record, any team has room for improvement.
“We can always improve,” said Torbett. “Our freshman libero [Brandee Markwith] has had some games where she’s getting 32 digs, while some days she can just be a freshmen, so getting more consistent is going to be my focus. We’ve seen what the girls are capable of and we just need to play that level all the time. If we can get more consistent, more wins will come.”
One good thing the team can rely on is several players stepping up to fill in the big roles. The three big offensive factors are outside hitters Sydney Darden, I’Tiana Taylor and Natalie Montini, who have 94, 85 and 76 kills, respectively.
Defensively, ECU has two main options for picking up digs with liberos Sabrina Gonzalez and Markwith, who have 111 and 132, respectively.
“We have several players who can step up,” said Torbett.
The Pirates take on the SMU Mustangs (7-5) for their opener in AAC play. The game will be played tonight at 8.
The Mustangs have played big opponents like North Carolina, Arizona and NC State where they picked up three of their losses. Offensively, SMU will rely on sophomore setter Nastassja Bowman, who leads the teams in kills, with 166 so far this season.
Last season, SMU swept the Pirates in straight sets. The Pirates have yet to win a set against the Mustangs since they’ve been in the AAC, going 0-4 against the Mustangs.
The Pirates will also face Tulsa, which is second in the AAC coming into conference play, on Saturday at 1 p.m.
ECU has not had much luck against the Golden Hurricane. The Pirates have been swept both seasons since joining the AAC, going 0-4. Unlike SMU, ECU managed to win two sets against Tulsa last season.
Tulsa will likely be the most difficult test ECU has faced yet this season. Tulsa has lost only one game this season, coming at the hands of South Dakota. The Golden Hurricane has five players with at least 60 kills and two with over 130, as well as four players with over 100 digs.