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The Bradsher Beat
Friday, October 20, 2006

By Bethany Bradsher

ECU in the thick of volleyball title chase

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The East Carolina volleyball team is just a short home stand away from making history and gaining a burst of momentum that could carry them all the way to the Pirates’ first conference championship.

The Lady Pirates (14-9, 5-4) won their last four Conference USA matches, a streak that is second only to their five-in-a-row run in the conference last year. Before last season, the team’s first under new head coach Chris Rushing, the squad hadn’t won more than three consecutive conference games since the ‘80's.

To extend that streak and improve their standing in C-USA, the team needs to prevail against Rice tonight and Houston on Sunday afternoon. It could be a pivotal weekend for the Lady Pirates and other teams in conference championship contention, especially because this season has been defined by parity.

“This year, it’s so up in the air,” said sophomore libero Trish Monroe. “Depending on who beats who this weekend, we could have a six-way tie for first place.”

The team has really hit its stride in the past few games, Rushing said, because after some experimentation with the lineup he finally found the most effective combination of starters. Three freshmen — Hannah Fenker, Stephanie Turner and Melissa Zeltner — join more experienced players like seniors Jaime Bevan and Heidi Krug as starters.

“We just had to find the right combination,” said Rushing, who came to ECU from Brigham Young. “It’s a pure team sport.”

Even though each player’s contribution is crucial in volleyball, there have been some impressive individual achievements from the squad. Krug, a setter from Kildeer, IL, earned Conference USA Setter of the Week honors this week for her career-best 71 assists against Southern Mississippi. Krug also holds the ECU record for most career assists.

Other standout contributors this season are Bevan, who is two blocks away from setting ECU’s all-time career block record, and junior Kelley Wernert, who is leading the team in kills with 353 total, or 4.3 a game.

The longer the season goes, the more the players seem to achieve as they trust each other’s instincts on the court, Monroe said.

“Individually we’re getting a lot more confidence in each other, and then we’re getting more confidence in ourselves,” she said.

Among the newcomers, Rushing has seen impressive glimmers from players like Turner, an outside hitter who, at 5-foot-9, is small for her position but makes up for it in her ability to get around the floor.

“She’s a tiny girl, but she plays really big,” he said. “It’s pretty bizarre how she’s just very dynamic and extremely quick. I think she might be the quickest player I’ve every coached.”

With Rushing settled in at ECU and the team’s belief in itself swelling with every win, the Pirates are poised to make a serious postseason bid, especially because the departure of Louisville and Cincinnati eliminated the dominant teams and left a conference of talented teams that would win or lose any time they take the court.

“We have a minimum of eight matches left and we could win them all, and we could lose them all,” Rushing said. “That’s how our conference is.
“It makes it really exciting to know that anybody can win the conference season or conference tournament.”

Rice comes into town at 4-5 in the conference and Houston is 6-3. And those aren’t the Pirates’ only two chances to shore up their own record before their home crowd. Next weekend brings two more home games, against Southern Miss and Central Florida.

Despite some pressure to continue the victory streak, Monroe doesn’t seem worried that her teammates will give into the emotions and crumble.

“We’re really excited,” she said. “We’re just playing so well that we want to keep it going.”

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02/23/2007 01:13:22 AM

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