The East Carolina volleyball team clinched a winning season after bringing its A-game this weekend, winning both matches at home on Friday night and Sunday afternoon against the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida.
The immense energy from the Pirate win on Friday, after a 3-1 victory over the Bulls, definitely carried into Sunday's game when ECU also defeated the Knights in a similar 3-1 fashion.
On Sunday, momentum in the first set favored ECU when senior middle hitter Natalie Montini hammered the ball from an overpass to get a kill. This lead the Pirates on a 4-point streak to make the score 7-5 immediately after senior outside hitter Ashton Mares had an explosive slide kill down the line. Montini, one of the four Pirates to have double digit kills (14) from the match, ended the game with a .440 hitting average with only three errors out of 25 attempts.
"It's something that comes naturally, I want to succeed,” Montini said.
Mares went on to give the Pirates back-to-back points with a kill and a stuff block that forced the Knights into a timeout. The call didn't seem to faze Mares, who was on fire in the second set with multiple defensive and offensive plays, contributing her eighth double-double to the team this season that totals her career digs to 1,001. Mares is the 11th player in ECU history to grasp the 1,000-dig mark.
Despite the valiant efforts of middle hitter Toya Osuegbu and right side freshman Bri Wood, the team kept making simple errors, such as missed serves that gave up easy points, resulting in it dropping the set.
"My mentality going into the locker room after being up 2-0 in sets, was that we just needed to play calm, confident ball and minimize hitting errors," head coach Julie Torbett said. "Getting on top early sets the tone of the game".
The Pirates came into the fourth set with senior outside hitter Lael Ceriani getting ECU three of its four points with her kills (16 on the day). Mares got kills from the front row as well as consistently making herself available to attack out of the back row. Her hustle and ability to read the ball finished her with 20 digs for the match.
"I try to lead by example and take the team into my own hands if I need to," Mares said. “When we started to struggle in the third set, I just reminded everyone to come together, relax and see that the other team are the ones under pressure, not us.”
The fourth set started strong with Ceriani alienating the front row, which put the Pirates up 10-6 early. ECU would eventually win the hard fought set (25-22) and from that, the match.
Friday night's game went similarly for the Pirates, winning 3-1, but was played against a determined USF team that came into Minges Coliseum with very high energy.
The Pirates responded with a quick two-point lead, followed by one of Mares' big kills to the middle of the court, bringing the Pirates a 5-3 lead over USF. While the Pirates led 5-3, some errors made in the second set caused Torbett to call a timeout in order to regroup her squad.
"I was the most displeased with our serve-receive and most frustratingly, our hitting average going down," Torbett said.
When the team started to fall apart, freshman setter Shelby Martin took control when she had two back-to-back dumps out of the front row, proving herself to be an offensive resource to the team.
"She's the QB of the team and delivered the ball to key hitters,” Torbett said. “I'm proud of how well she handles pressure.”
The Pirates went on to conquer the third and fourth sets when Minges Coliseum went wild as multiple players threw their bodies to the floor to propel the Pirates to finish out a hard-fought game that ended in a 29-27 victory and soon after, the fourth set 25-16.
Friday and Sunday’s games were a huge success that brought Torbett her 73rd win with ECU. ECU’s current record stands at 18-9 and it has been 11 years since the team has had a 20-win season. With six games left in the season, the Pirates set their eyes on inching closer to that record when they take on No. 21 Wichita State inside Minges Coliseum at 4:30 p.m. this Friday.