BALTIMORE – Excited. Anxious. Accomplished. Determined. Driven. Those are the words that would describe the emotions that sophomore Aleena McDaniel is feeling about the North Carolina A&T volleyball team being back where it belongs, the MEAC Tournament.
However that feeling of being a contender for the MEAC title is a first for every member of the team, including head Hal Clifton. A&T hasn’t competed for a conference championship since 2007.
“This is by far the biggest match of my collegiate career,” McDaniel said about Friday’s quarterfinal match against Howard. “I know Coach is just as excited as us and we know that this is also a big match for him. As we keep winning, those games will become bigger and more important.”
But winning wasn’t something that the young squad was used to. A rebuilding period overturned the program which saw three head coaches from 2007-11. A&T has been trying to get back on the right track and with the mindset of several current players, it’s already taken a step in the right direction.
“I thought it’d be really cool to help rebuild the program and make an immediate impact along with the others in my class,” McDaniel said. “One day when it gets back to where it used to be we can look back and say that we were a part of that.”
McDaniel, along with sophomores Te’Borah Hawkins-Hollingsworth, Ashley Johnson, Jasmine Jones, Maris Kellar, and Brooke Stamnes all agreed that they wanted to help rebuild the program. Hailing from places like Canada, Hawaii, Tennessee and Georgia, this dedicated group set its sights on A&T with a mission.
“Slowly but surely we knew that we could change the program,” Hawkins-Hollingsworth said. “The university welcomed me with open arms more than any other school I visited. With one building block at a time, things will continue to turn around. We’ve earned the right to compete to become the MEAC champion.”
“I really wanted to go to a school on the east coast,” Johnson said. “A lot of people from back home go to schools on the west coast. A&T had the major I wanted, and I really wanted to help the volleyball program. I thought coming in with such a big class we were going to make an immediate change.”
Coined rightfully as the “Sensational Sophomores”, this group can be credited for most of the team’s success this season. The sophomores have accounted for 790 of A&T’s 995 kills and 1,053 of the team’s 1,316 digs.
“That was our goal last year to turn the program around and this year we showed that,” Kellar stated. “We are better, we’ve improved, and we can win the championship.”
“Last year we were all new and we didn’t know each other but this year has been more comfortable,” Johnson said. “This year we started to click more especially on the court and that makes us more excited for the future.”
Putting a group of young women together to play the sport they all love along with living, eating, studying, and practically doing everything together may not always be the prettiest sight. With a range of personalities ranging from outgoing, shy, dramatic, and personable, this group is very different but that’s what makes them work,
“We’re different but it comes together in a weird way,” the sophomores said in a roar of laughter. “We as a class play with so much passion, drive, and energy on the court. We’re all on the same page. We want this. It makes our chemistry on the court so much better. ”
The Aggies will have to bring plenty of energy as they prepare for the biggest match of their collegiate and coaching careers as they push forward to bring A&T back to the forefront. Howard didn’t qualify for the MEAC tournament last after just winning one match but has posted a league-best overall record of 20-10 this season.
Both teams will meet for the first time since 2006 on Friday at 10 a.m. Although making it to the tournament is a grand accomplishment in itself, nothing can measure to the title of being a champion.
“I want to see us compete,” McDaniel said. “We have to play our hardest which means going and touching every ball that we possibly can. We can’t give up on any play but when it all comes down to it we just have to give it our all and play the best that we know we can.”