AAC volleyball: Lady Buffs advance to semifinals
Published 11:07 pm Thursday, November 13, 2014
By Matt Hill
KINGSPORT—After finishing tied for eighth in the regular season, Tennessee Wesleyan was not supposed to be in the Appalachian Athletic Conference quarterfinals that featured the top six teams after pool play with the top two teams getting byes, but it made the most of their trip and had Milligan fighting for its postseason lives.
The Lady Buffs however, had that extra gear toward the end of the fourth set that prevented a possible disaster and gave them their first AAC semifinal appearance in five years.
Led by three big blocks at the end of the fourth from Emilee Linkous, the Lady Buffs were able to escape an incredible effort by the Lady Bulldogs in a 25-11, 18-25, 25-18, 26-24 victory at the Mariott Meadowview Hotel and Convention Center.
Wesleyan came into the match riding high after a victory over a Columbia team in pool play that demolished Milligan earlier in the year, and then gave No. 2 seed Union College all it wanted before losing in four close sets.
Milligan came in feeling somewhat relieved getting to play Wesleyan and it showed in the first set with a truly dominating performance, but in the end had a huge fight on its hands.
It took some great play at the net at the end of the match to rally from a 21-19 fourth-set deficit to pull the match off in four and to avoid having to go into a fifth set where the Lady Bulldogs would have had all the momentum.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my team,” Milligan head coach Doneva Bays said. “They have worked extremely hard all year. Tennessee Wesleyan to their credit, they have had a battle all day long. Playing three matches in a day is tough on any team and being an underdog coming in makes it even tougher, and they had a great win over Columbia this morning that got them to this place. We came out really strong and I couldn’t have asked for a better set.
“We are still weak minded sometimes and we showed our youth over the season where we let up and have a mental letdown — and I would definitely credit that second game nothing against Tennessee Wesleyan or how they played, to us making too many errors and when you give a team that has had great momentum all day momentum, it is hard to kind of battle from that and winning the third I thought we took that momentum back and played very well. But the fourth was a battle.”
The fourth set was a huge battle and Wesleyan was able to get some big kills to take the momentum back. Milligan though had come very far in a short period of time this season and after a horrendous start to the year, the much improved and surging Lady Buffs were able to get some big plays in the end to avoid the upset and set up an 11 a.m. semifinal with Union College this morning with a possible championship appearance on the horizon at 4 p.m.
“Nobody wants to go home and we have seniors who know this is their last moment and it’s do or die,” Bays said, “and I think they fought to the very end and Emilee Linkous really stepped up in the end and we told her, do what you do best and I think she came through with three blocks in a row and came up with a big kill and that is the kind of kid she has been all year.”
The leader of this Milligan team and engine that has made it go has been setter Jessica Davenport, who was named setter of the year in the Appalachian Athletic Conference this season.
Davenport did not want this season to end, and everyone on Milligan’s squad was determined to fight off the pesky Lady Bulldogs.
“I haven’t been to the tournament semifinals since I started playing volleyball for Milligan, so it is a good honor to go there with my teammates,” Davenport said. “We were getting kind of complacent in the second set and we let down a little bit. We were not being disciplined as we should be and by then it was too late, but I felt in the third and fourth sets we were more disciplined.”
In a sport where the hitters get the attention, the liberos and setters are the ones who really are the catalysts for the team and that is what Davenport is for Milligan.
Davenport, especially in the first set on this night when Milligan had their huge run, is able to get the ball in the right places and the hitters are able to drill it.
When the passes are on, it makes Davenport’s job easier and she is able to get the ball to big hitters like Linkous so she can have nights like this one where she had nine kills but more importantly only two errors with Marissa Langford having 14 kills and Samantha Bruinius netting 12.
Also in the only rotation she saw all night, former Sullivan South star Jenna Conkin had two throwdown kills to secure the third set.
“Whenever I set, I get that feeling wherever the block is and I try to go opposite,” Davenport said. “It is really my hitters who are the money makers who get the kills all the time and I feel like they really stepped it up in the fourth set and gave us all the kills that they had.”
Davenport finished with 39 assists while Kaitlyn Round had 21 assists to lead defensively for Milligan.
The Lady Buffs will definitely have a battle on their hand against No. 2 seed Union this morning, but the Lady Buffs looked just two months ago like it would be nowhere near being in this position after a very rough September.
Milligan is now 19-16 overall, looking for its 20th win, and a chance to play for a conference championship.
To do that though, Davenport says Milligan will need to play great defense, something that is really coming around for the Lady Buffs.
“It starts with our serve and our pass and without that, you can’t win any ball games,” Davenport said. “We have to be disciplined in that area and be disciplined in setting and if we do that maybe we will be in the finals and maybe win the finals.”
Milligan 25 25 25
Truett-McConnell 18 17 17
Sometimes in volleyball, back row play gets overlooked for the glitz and glamor of the kill, but on this afternoon Milligan’s defense took center stage and helped lead the Lady Buffs to a solid win.
Freshman Marissa Langford is known for her powerful hitting abilities, but she is also very solid defensively and she helped spark the Lady Buffs on that side of the ledger.
Langford had her usual 10 kill performance, but also ended with 13 digs, and some that propelled Milligan in a big way offensively for players like Emilee Linkous, who finished with eight kills on the night.
It was Langford on the defensive being able to keep balls in play and set up the hitters that helped Milligan and sparked the Lady Buffs at times in turning close sets into blowouts.
Milligan only led 18-17 in set two, but won the last seven points of the frame to erase any doubts of who was going to come out on top.
It was not just Langford who played well defensively, as libero Kaitlyn Round finished with 12 digs and probably one of the most impressive pancakes of the year in the second set.
With Milligan ahead 14-11, Round was able to scoop up a ball headed for the ground, and Milligan went on to win the point.
Though defense set the tone, Jessica Davenport was able to get a lot of good sets as usual to set up the hitters and also to turn the dynamic defensive plays into points as she had 27 assists on the afternoon.
Truett McConnell is a growing program coached by Melody Tenney, one of the youngest head coaches in the country at age 24. She is in her first year at the school.