The East Tennessee State volleyball team, with just one senior, won for the 11th time in 12 matches Saturday with a straight-set Southern Conference victory over UNC Greensboro at Brooks Gym.
Lauren Hatch had 12 kills and nine digs, Kaela Massey came through with 11 kills, seven digs and two blocks and the Bucs took a 25-13, 26-24, 25-16 win over the Spartans.
That was the response coach Benavia Jenkins was looking for after the Bucs (18-4, 9-1) lost 3-2 to four-win Furman on Friday night to end a 10-match winning streak. There was no hangover 20 hours later: The 25-13 first set was the largest margin in conference play this season.
“Last night was a great experience for us to see where we are as a team,” Jenkins said. “We talk about winning in this conference is about who is going to show up. We told them to forget about last night and focus on UNCG today. I thought our girls came out and did a great job with that.”
Jenkins liked how the Bucs stayed on the gas all three sets. They were up 6-1 early in the third to set the tone for the quick end.
“We served very aggressive. That’s one of our strengths that we do really well in practice,” Jenkins said. “We just have to execute that on the court. We did a good job of hitting our target and talking where we were consistent and disciplined on defense today.”
ETSU’s success under Jenkins follows a 28-7 finish and NCAA tournament bid in former coach Lindsey Devine’s final season leading the Bucs. There has been no drop-off thanks in large part to the play of Massey — the lone ETSU senior on a team featuring seven freshmen.
Massey, a 6-foot-1 middle blocker from Brentwood, leads the Bucs with 246 kills and 84 blocks for the season. Named the Southern Conference freshman of the year in 2016, she has embraced the leadership role as the team’s most experienced player.
“Being the only senior has been great. It’s definitely not what I expected,” Massey said. “The freshmen have stepped up and shown not only me, but the whole conference, that we’re not playing around. We keep getting in the gym.”
Jenkins added, “We rely a lot on Kaela. She has the experience, has won championships here, so she understands that championship mentality. We feed her a lot and depend on her. She’s a great role model and teammate to have.”
Cunningham, a freshman from Knoxville, is one of those Massey has helped. Cunningham has 234 kills, including nine in Saturday’s match. Sara Esposito, experienced by ETSU standards as a sophomore, closed with eight kills.
“I think today’s match was good and clean volleyball,” Cunningham said. “We had to come out and perform well. The second set, the way they came back, we had to come back even stronger the third set to finish out the match.”
Emily Arnold contributed 34 assists and three service aces, libero Marija Popovic had 20 digs and Sydney Cherney added 14 digs for the Bucs.
Jenkins noted Popovic’s aggressiveness on the defensive end.
“She’s a libero and that’s how she’s supposed to play,” Jenkins said. “I wouldn’t expect anything else out of ‘Pop-J.’ She works hard. We have to continue to get her more consistent in the service-receive game. Defensively, she’s pretty solid.”
The Bucs finish off a four-match home stretch next Friday and Saturday, hosting Mercer and Chattanooga.