Eastern rallies from 24-20 deficit in the third, saving six set points, to secure third Big Sky sweep
The Eastern Washington University volleyball team is officially on a roll.
Two days after taking down Northern Arizona in one of the most exciting Big Sky matches of the year, the Eagles cruised past Southern Utah, 3-0 (25-16, 25-12, 29-27), on Saturday (Nov. 3) in Cedar City, Utah, to solidify a rare conference road sweep.
Eastern has now prevailed in four of its last five outings, three of which were 3-0 shutouts for the red and white.
With the dominant win over SUU, the Eagles improve to 4-23 on the year and 4-12 in Big Sky play, while the Thunderbirds drop to 9-19 overall and 5-11 in league.
Picking up right where they left off on Thursday in the thrilling 3-2 upset of NAU, Eastern hit a combined .333 in the first two sets in Cedar City with 28 kills and just six errors. The Eagles also put five service aces on the stat sheet before intermission - just one less than their single-match season high of six.
With exception of its two defensive specialists, every Eastern player on the court had at least two kills in the opening set on Saturday.
But it wasn’t just the offense getting it done; EWU held the Thunderbirds to a dismal .014 clip in those first two sets.
The Eagles had to fight a little harder in the third set, but fight they did.
After enduring a 6-1 run by Southern Utah, Eastern found itself in an 18-13 hole. The Eagles earned a couple of sideouts to pull it within two at 19-17, but SUU charged back to score five of the next eight points for a dangerous 24-20 lead.
Faced with an improbable comeback, the Eagles saved four-straight set points to knot the score at 24. Senior Cora Kellerman had back-to-back kills during the run to keep Eastern alive.
Southern Utah had two more set-point opportunities at 25-24 and 26-25, but the Eags saved those as well. A service ace off the hand of senior Shelby Puckett, and back-to-back kills from freshman Allie Schumacher and sophomore Talia Fermantez finally sealed the 29-27 victory for EWU.
“It [the comeback] just shows how much we’ve grown,” said EWU head coach Lisa Westlake. “The ability to come back from a deficit has been a huge hurdle for us this season. Mentally, we have just really matured. It showed on Thursday against NAU and it showed tonight. Mental toughness is a learned skill, and it took time for us to believe in ourselves. But we have played with incredible poise these last two matches.”
Eastern finished the match hitting .267, while the T-Birds recorded a .079 attack percentage - the worst offensive performance by an Eagle opponent this year.
Eastern had 62 total digs in the match, compared to just 45 for SUU, which marked the biggest advantage EWU has had over an opponent all season in that defensive category.
“Our back row has become such a solid part of our game,” said Westlake. “In the past, this team focused so much on blocking and often relied on it to win games. But we have worked hard on back-row defense in practice, and have come to expect all our players to dig up balls, which they are doing well now.”
With four different players tallying at least one ace, EWU registered a season-high seven service aces in the match, while only giving up two aces to Southern Utah.
“Everything happened tonight because of our passing and serving,” said Westlake. “That was another area we had really struggled with all year, but we are figuring it out. There has been so much improvement in the last few matches. When we pass well, it opens open our offense, which enables us to get kills, which in turn gives us confidence. It all starts with first contact, and we took care of those tonight.”
Kellerman led EWU with her second-straight double-double. The La Conner, Wash., native finished with 15 kills and just one error for a season-best .412 attack percentage. She had 16 digs, as well as two of Eastern’s seven service aces. On Thursday against NAU, Kellerman posted 17 kills and a career-high-tying 20 digs.
“Cora has really stepped up her game,” said Westlake. “She has taken a more active role, and been a true leader out there. That shows up in all areas of her game - offense and defense.”
Coming off a school-record 35 kills against NAU, Schumacher finished with nine kills and seven digs against the T-Birds. Fermantez had eight kills on a .429 clip, while fellow middle hitter Kellen Barfield chipped in six.
The player responsible for this thriving offense was senior setter Laney Brown. Running a 5-1 offense for EWU, Brown had 39 assists on Saturday, to go along with nine digs and three kills. This came on the heels of her career night against NAU, in which she had 67 assists, 14 digs, six kills and two blocks.
“Laney has grown so much this season,” said Westlake. “Her location has become more consistent, her decision-making has improved, but more than anything, we have seen a change in her emotional control as a leader on the court. Laney used to show her frustrations, but she’s worked very hard on overcoming that, and has done a great job.”
After a few days back in Cheney, Eastern will head back out on the road to face defending Big Sky Champion Northern Colorado on Thursday (Nov. 8), followed by its first-ever trip to Grand Forks. N.D., where it will play North Dakota on Saturday (Nov. 10).