GREENSBORO-This is what rivalries are meant to be-heavyweight championship fights.
That's precisely what the large home crowd witnessed on Friday night watching the North Carolina A&T volleyball team take on N.C. Central, as it took five sets in a match that saw 39 ties and 19 lead changes before a winner was determined.
Unfortunately for the Aggies, they were not victorious. The Aggies dropped a nail-biter of a contest against the Eagles 28-30, 25-22, 14-25, 25-23, 16-14.
"This is one of those matches that becomes an anomaly because we out-hit, we out-assist, we out-dig we out-block and the only thing that we don't get out is the final score. It's just unfortunate for us," said A&T head coach Hal Clifton. "I'm definitely not disappointed in our effort. We knew it was going to be tight. We'll just keep going. We have nine more [conference] matches."
If the rest are this good, then Aggie fans are in for quite a ride. Over the final 14 points of the fifth set, the two teams slugged away at one another like only Aggies and Eagles can. A kill by NCCU's Dayana Arrufat Rondon, who finished with 23 on the day, tied it at 8. Aleena McDaniel put some distance between the two teams as she sparked a 4-1 Aggies run with two kills.
After a NCCU (3-16, 1-0 MEAC) timeout, the Eagles collected a pair of kills and a point off an A&T ball-handling error to knot the score at 12. Both teams then traded points as the kills got harder and the blocks got meaner. A&T's final block assists of the match by McRae and Daniels tied the set at 14. A kill from the Eagles made it a 15-14 set. The Eagles won 16-14 on an attack error by freshman Brooke Stamnes.
"We distributed the ball pretty well because our passing was good. We felt like we had a really good, balanced attack. We hit .237, which is great. I'm really happy with that," said Clifton.
The Aggies (0-20, 1-0) put together one of their best offensive performances of the year on Friday in their conference-opening match.
It was the second time this season that three players have collected double-digit kills, and the Aggies hit a season-best .237 in the match, with a season-high 63 kills. Senior Andrea Evans set a new career high with eight total blocks, and junior Chelsea Fox also set a new career high with 52 assists. Stamnes set a new season high with 18 kills, while freshman Ashley Johnson set a new season best with 30 digs.
The Aggies started off the match strong, and had to fight hard in all five sets.
McDaniel tied the first set at 27 with a kill and gave the Aggies the lead with another score. But then Johnson served it into the net to tie it again. NCCU followed suit with its own service error to make it a 29-28 set. A&T setter Fox went back to serve and earned an ace for a 30-28 win.
After N.C. Central took the second set, the Aggies were as dominant in the third set as they have been all year. They made just one error in 26 attempts and recorded a .500 hitting percentage.
The Aggies trailed 9-8 before 13-3 run put the Eagles away. Daniels starred during the set with five kills on five attempts with no errors. But the Aggies couldn't put the Eagles away. N.C. Central overcame a 10-6 deficit in the fourth set to take a 24-20 lead. N.C. Central errors helped the Aggies pull to within one at 24-23. McRae's block error ended the set in N.C. Central's favor.
"I can't say enough about the crowd tonight and their support for our girls. Yelling and screaming "Aggie Pride"-that was why this facility was re-commissioned to do that," said Clifton about Moore Gymnasium. "Our fans were great. They saw a tremendous match even though we lost. To lose 16-14 in the fifth, it was just great volleyball. We hope to that we can keep putting that product out on the court every night and keep our fans coming back. We're going to get them a win. I'm really thankful for their presence."
The Aggies will host Bethune-Cookman on Friday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m., in Moore Gymnasium, and Florida A&M on Sunday, Oct. 7 at 1 p.m.