Ryan Flynn – Sports Editor –
Owls volleyball entered the Northeast-10 tournament as the No. 4 seed, and after dispatching No. 5 Saint Rose in straight sets at home, matched up in a heated matchup against top ranked cross-town rival New Haven. Southern lost 3-1 in a competitive match with eventual champion UNH.
The semifinals matched the furthest the team has advanced in the NE-10’s, a feat last achieved in 2009.
Against Saint Rose, the Owls claimed an easy first set win 25-11, before winning the second and third by scores of 25-23 and 25-21. Freshman Kelly Gunneson led the team with 11 kills, while junior outside hitter Lauren McVey added 10 of her own.
The victory set up a showdown with New Haven, who had beaten the Owls in straight sets back in October. To say that UNH had a dominant regular season would be an understatement; they were led by Northeast-10 Player of the Year Keidy Candelaria. The team went 24-1 and were undefeated both in-conference and in their home gym and came into the match riding a 22-game win streak.
Make no mistake: this team was a juggernaut. And for the better part of three sets, the Owls hung right with them.
“I thought, for the most part, we did a great job,” Owls coach Lisa Barbaro said. “We pushed them, we kept our offense quick and did a good job with that. We dug up a lot of balls, when we only had a single block up which was good. Just fell short tonight.”
Southern jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the opening set, and didn’t relinquish it until late in the set. Tied at 18 apiece, an attack error by Sarah Beres gave UNH its first lead of the match. The action went back and forth from there, with each team within one. The set finally ended on a kill by UNH’s Kristen Lee, with New Haven winning 27-25.
“New Haven’s a real tough opponent and I think, obviously we had to battle with their size and being able to defend their middle,” Barbaro said. “And [they have] the player of the year on the outside so we had a big challenge just defending their offense.”
After a slow start to the second set, Southern began to string together some points. Taking their first lead at 7-6, the Owls held the favored Chargers at bay. They would not surrender this lead, though closing out the set was a bit of an adventure. The Owls eventually pulled through 25-20 to even the match at one set apiece.
Senior middle blocker/outside hitter Syriah Celestine attributed their ability to play the Chargers close to what the team learned in their previous meeting.
“We definitely learned a lot, we learned their defense, how to defend them and how to control our side of the court in order to make us keep moving forward,” she said. “And I think all that came out tonight.”
The Owls rode the momentum to a third set lead, which UNH eventually took back at 7-6. UNH began to put together three-point runs at a time, eventually winning the third set 25-20 after a late Southern rally.
“They definitely have some tough middles and they play great defense,” senior setter Kimberly Lachowicz said. “We did what we could but, they have some pretty big middles so, a little tough to defend sometimes.”
The fourth set was more of the same. Southern grabbed a small early lead but succumbed quickly. UNH eventually won the set and the match 25-19 on an Amber Cannady kill.
“Overall, I’m just really proud of the girls and the way that they fought and they pushed,” Barbaro said. “We still made some mistakes in crucial moments and I think, you know, when we allowed it to get on like four to five point runs, it’s very difficult against a tough team to have to battle back from that.”
McVey led the Owls with 16 kills and 14 digs, while senior libero Vanessa Sullivan had 23 digs. This was the final game for Sullivan, Lachowicz and Celestine, three seniors who all contributed to a stellar season.
“It’s been awesome, it’s like my second family. I love these girls,” Celestine said.
Lachowicz added: “It’s been an awesome four years, I couldn’t have asked for any differently. I have a great group of girls, a great family and I’m a little far from home so it’s nice to have some girls to feel at home with.”