By Hayden Cox and Greg Peterson
With each passing game the Paladin’s women’s volleyball is improving and moving closer to their pre-season hype of winning a SoCon title. Despite a tough non-conference schedule and stiff Southern Conference competition, the Furman Paladins volleyball team is still in the mix to win the regular season crown.
The Paladins began the 2016 season with 11 grueling road matches before their home opener Sept. 20. This tough road schedule saw the Paladins defeat major Division I schools Auburn and Clemson, but they also suffered eight losses in the 11 games.
Opening the season as preseason favorites to repeat as SoCon champions, the Paladins returned 11 players from last year’s championship team, including reigning SoCon Player of the Year, senior outside hitter Annie Bierman.
Bierman has continued her success with help from fellow senior Taina Joseph, a middle blocker who saw significant time last year and has worked hard to become a major part of the Paladin lineup. Unfortunately, the other major returner, Meg Demaar, a junior libero, has been sidelined for most of the season with a stress fracture. She will likely not be able to return in time to help defend her team’s SoCon title.
Demaar has kept her focus on the team though and has tried to be a leader on the team off the court since she has not been able to step on it.
“After such a successful end to last season, it has been hard to carry momentum and fire into this year. Things didn’t pick up where we left off and we’ve struggled with that,” Demaar said.
Furman had their home opener against the Charlotte 49ers, winning three sets to one. The Paladins won their next three home games against SoCon foes East Tennessee State, UNC Greensboro and Western Carolina.
The Paladins’ record at home this season has been an impressive 5-1 with the only loss coming against SoCon rival Wofford, losing three sets to none.
Head coach and four time SoCon coach of the year Michelle Young is proud of a great home stand.
“We prefer to be playing at home. We have only lost a handful of matches since moving into Alley Gym,” Young said.
While the home record has been impressive, the Paladins have struggled on the road this season, going just 2-8.
“We will need to improve our road record if we want to have a chance to win the regular season,” Young said.
Even though the Paladins have had some good matches, they are still looking for improvement.
“We are still trying to find our best lineup as well as play more consistent volleyball. Even though we have had some good matches, I don’t think we have reached our full capabilities as a volleyball team” Young said.
After the a struggling start to the season Coach Young had a sign made for the locker room with the word “process” highlighted for everyone to see, reminding the mostly young team to stay focused day in and day out to achieve their goals.
The team has used the motto “You get what you earn, not what you want,” to keep working towards their goal of defending the conference title and returning to the NCAA Championship.
Several players have been recognized by the SoCon for outstanding play so far this season. Junior libero Meg Demaar and sophomore outside hitter Jordan McNeill were both defensive players of the week while Bierman was offensive player of the week.
The Paladins hope to finish off the season strong after coming off a win against rival Wofford three sets to one. After avenging their lone home loss of the season the Paladins are looking to get back on track to their preseason goals. While the regular season is important for establishing play and gaining a higher seed, if the team is able to get hot in time for the SoCon playoffs that is all that matters for winning the SoCon.
In fact, Furman has already beaten East Tennessee State, the team currently leading the conference standings in a tight 3-2 match and lost to The Citadel who is currently last in the SoCon. This highlights the fact that it is still anyone’s game. Winning the SoCon is about being the best when it matters.
“They are very hungry to get back to the championship and they have not lost sight of their goals. They are still very invested in this season and know that we are still in a position to do well,” Young said.
The Paladins have three home games remaining: Friday Oct. 28 against Chattanooga, Nov. 4 against Mercer and Nov. 5 against Samford. Furman wraps up the regular season at Chattanooga Nov. 11.
As the Paladins hope to poisiton themselves for a strong postseason run, these games will be essential for gaining a high seed in time for the SoCon tournament
The SoCon tournament will begin Nov. 19 and the championship will be played Nov. 21. Hosted by Samford who last won the tournament in 2014, this year’s tournament will be the Paladin’s chance to prove that their regular season struggles are officially behind them. Furman has proven they can beat anyone in the SoCon, they just need to have it all together when they travel to Birmingham in late November.