CULLOWHEE, N.C. - One match does not make a season. That was the thought process from second-year head coach Hal Clifton after his North Carolina A&T volleyball team lost its season opener to St. Peter's 3-1 (19-25, 25-19, 25-23, 25-16) Friday afternoon in the Western Carolina Catamount Classic at the Ramsey Center.
The Aggies will play two additional matches in the classic, including contests versus Northern Kentucky and tournament host Western Carolina.
The reason behind Clifton's optimism was the fact the Aggies won the first set of Friday's match. The Aggies won just eight sets in 2011, so to jump ahead of St. Peter's early is a positive sign as the program attempts to progress.
A&T won the first set behind a .346 hitting percentage. Freshman Brooke Stamnes, who had nine kills in the match, led the Aggies in the first set with three kills. A 4-0 run helped the Aggies seize control of Set 1 as junior Jeana Daniels slammed the ball to the floor off of an assist from junior Chelsea Fox to get the rally started. An attack error by Kristina Baehr completed the run and gave the Aggies a 17-14 lead.
A Fox service ace and a kill from sophomore Aprill McRae put the Peacocks away. The Peacocks, however, answered back winning taking set No. 2. But they had a much tougher time in winning set No. 3.
Lauren Behrens put the Peacocks on the brink of winning the third set with a kill that gave St. Peter's a 24-20 lead. But the Aggies fought off set point three times thanks in part to two kills from freshman Aleena McDaniel. A service error ended the Aggies rally, and handed the Peacocks the third set. Clifton said the tough set three loss hurt the Aggies momentum.
"Our expectations were to compete from the first point and I think we accomplished that in the first two sets," said Clifton. "We weren't able to back into our groove after the third set."
Even with the loss, the Aggies showed a lot of promise as seven newcomers, including six freshmen, made their collegiate debuts. Of the seven newcomers, four of them started all four sets, including McRae.
"It's exciting," Clifton said about playing such a youthful lineup. "Multiple times we had four freshmen on the court and of those four, three were primary passers. So it is a lot of pressure to put on young athletes competing on a Division I level. It's promising. Now that we have that first match out of the way, they will settle down and play the volleyball they know how to play."
Stamnes had 19 digs, two service aces and 11 total points in her debut. McDaniel led the Aggies with 13 kills and eight digs, while freshman libero Ashley Johnson finished with 14 digs, which already surpasses the highest dig count of 12 from last season. In terms of efficiency, senior Andrea Evans led the way with a .545 hitting percentage on six kills and 11 attempts. Daniels and McRae helped the Aggies defensively with five and three blocks respectively.
"I was really proud of the middles," said Clifton. "They were very efficient, which is something we have needing from them. We just didn't give them enough support all the way around. We have thirty matches left and we are excited about where we are."