11/12/04 — MOC volleyball preview

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MOC volleyball preview

Published in Sports on November 12, 2004 1:56 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- The Mount Olive College volleyball team arguably finished the regular season as the hottest team in the conference. The Trojans hope an 11-day layoff doesn't cool them off.

Mount Olive is the No. 2 seed and gets a first-round bye in the 2004 NCAA Division II Carolinas-Virginia Athletics Conference volleyball tournament, which gets under way today at Laurinburg. The Trojans open play with a quarterfinal-round match Saturday at 11:30 a.m. against the winner of today's match between No. 7 Barton and No. 10 Limestone.

If the Trojans win their quarterfinal-round match, they'll advance to the semifinal round Saturday at 4:30 p.m. against either No. 3 seed St. Andrews or No. 6 Coker. The championship match is scheduled for Sunday at 2 p.m. The tournament is hosted by St. Andrews Presbyterian College.

Mount Olive (24-11, 15-3 CVAC) finished the regular season with a six-match winning streak, including wins against regular-season conference champion Lees-McRae and third-place St. Andrews. All six wins were in conference play and three of the wins came against regionally-ranked opponents.

A major reason for the Trojans' current six-match winning streak is the torrid hitting streak of junior outside hitter Heidi Busch, a four-time CVAC player of the week winner this season, including each of the last three weeks. She ranks fifth in the nation with 5.61 kills per game and has been averaging 7.40 kills per game during the Trojans' winning streak.

Busch has reached double-figures in kills in all 35 matches this season and has recorded at least 19 kills in each of her last 12 matches, including a 34-kill performance against St. Andrews and a 33-kill outing against Barton. Busch, who ranks fifth in the CVAC with a .337 hitting percentage, has also been a force on defense with 3.01 digs per game.

Opponents have focused much of their attention on Busch, which has opened the door for a breakout season for sophomore middle hitter Anna Luft, who ranks first in the CVAC and 22nd in the nation with a .383 hitting percentage. She also ranks ninth in the CVAC with 3.32 kills per game and second with 0.63 aces per game. During the Trojans' current six-match winning streak, Luft is averaging 3.70 kills per game with a .496 hitting percentage.

Junior middle blocker Colby Mangum is 100 percent for the tournament after missing the Trojans' regular-season finale against Barton with an eye infection. Mangum ranks 10th in the nation in blocks per game with a 1.52 average. Her .343 hitting percentage is the fourth-highest in the CVAC, giving the Trojans three of the top five hitting percentage leaders in the conference. As a team Mount Olive ranks first in the CVAC and 10th in the nation with a .293 hitting percentage.

Another key has been junior setter Sara Christie, who is averaging 11.15 assists per game for the season, but has been averaging exactly 14.00 assists per game over the Trojans' last 11 matches. She has reached the 60-assist mark twice in her last 11 matches.

Sophomore Nikki Murphy has moved into the starting libero position in place of injured senior and two-time all-CVAC first-team selection Chasity Oxendine. Murphy is averaging 2.48 digs per game. Sophomore Aileen Torres has put up career numbers this season, filling in at setter and libero. She recorded 41 assists against Pfeiffer and posted 27 digs against Kutztown, the second-highest digs total by a Trojan this season.

Mount Olive has also benefited from the play of a trio of freshman outside hitters -- Sam Mitchell, Ashley Napoles and Candice Collins.

Mitchell ranks 11th in the CVAC with 3.24 kills per game and ranks among the top 20 in digs per game with a 3.20 average. She's averaging 4.80 digs per game during the Trojans' six-match winning streak. Napoles has epitomized the sports phrase "doing the things that don't show up in the boxscore," averaging 2.58 digs per game and seemingly always coming up with the big play when needed. She's reached double figures in digs 12 times this season.

Collins has emerged a serving threat for the Trojans, averaging exactly 1.0 aces per game during the Trojans' current winning streak.

Saturday's contest marks Mount Olive's first match since a 3-1 win over Barton November 2. The Trojans were scheduled to have played Wingate this past Tuesday, but the match was canceled due to a scheduling conflict by Wingate. The Trojan players feel the layoff has actually been helpful for the team.

"I think the layoff is doing us a lot of good," said Mangum. "I think we really needed the rest. But we also have been having some hard practices to get us ready. Sasha (Head coach Sasha Gutor) has us really pumped up for the tournament."

"I think the time off has helped," said Busch. "It's like preseason all over again. We're anxious to play again and we're excited about playing in the tournament."

This season marks the third consecutive year the Trojans have finished second in the regular season standings and entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed. Mount Olive has been eliminated in the semifinals by the No. 3 seed in each of the last two years, but both Busch and Mangum feel the team has a different mindset going into this year's tournament, thanks in large part to Mount Olive's 3-0 win over six-time conference champion Lees-McRae three weeks ago, the Trojans' first win over Lees-McRae since 1997.

"Beating Lees-McRae got us over the hump and that's the big difference between this year and last year," said Busch. "We have more confidence in ourselves going into the tournament than ever before."

"The last two years, we started off strong, then tapered off as season went on," said Mangum. "This year, we feel like we're peaking at the right time. The victory over Lees-McRae was huge. There are a lot of outstanding teams in the CVAC, but this season, we've beaten every team in the conference at least once and we feel there's no team we can't beat. We don't have that mental block anymore."

By seeding, Mount Olive and Lees-McRae could face each other in the championship match, but both teams will have to get through a tough field to make it to Sunday. Five CVAC teams, including Mount Olive, are ranked in the current NCAA Division II Atlantic Region rankings. The Trojans are ranked No. 6 in the region.

The winner of the CVAC Tournament earns one of three automatic berths in the Atlantic Regional of the 2004 NCAA Division II Women's Volleyball Championships. North Carolina Central already clinched the automatic berth from the CIAA and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) will crown its champion Saturday. In addition, five at-large teams will be selected for the regional. Regionally top-ranked California (Pa.) did not qualify for the six-team PSAC Tournament, but is still in contention for an at-large bid to the regionals.

While many are speculating where Mount Olive needs to finish in the conference tournament to secure an NCAA post-season berth, the Trojans simply want to take matters into their own hands and not worry about selection committees.

"Nobody has even thought about rankings," said Busch. "We're just going in to try to win the tournament and not have to worry about waiting on a bid."

"Our goal and our focus is on winning the tournament and getting the automatic bid," said Mangum. "We don't want to sit around waiting for the phone to ring and we don't want to put the decision in someone else's hands. We want to take care of our own destiny."

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