EAST GREENSBORO – According to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) head coaches and sports information directors, the winner of the MEAC Southern Division is anybody’s guess.
The North Carolina A&T volleyball team was picked to finish third in the MEAC South recently, but that third-place prediction came along with seven first-place votes and 87 points. MEAC perennial power Florida A&M received 10 first-place votes and 88 points to share preseason favorite honors with Bethune-Cookman who received five-first place votes and 88 points.
Courteney Pitt (6-1, OH, JR, Farmville, N.C.) was selected to the conference’s preseason team. The Aggies have never won a regular-season or tournament title, expectations have never been higher for a Hal Clifton-coached Aggies team as he enters his ninth season. The Aggies are coming off a season where they reached the MEAC title match losing to four-time defending champion Howard. It was the Aggies first conference title match appearance in 13 years.
In the process of reaching the final, the Aggies defeated a talented Maryland Eastern Shore (MDES) team and exorcised some demons by defeating the Florida A&M Rattlers in the semifinals. The win snapped a 40-match losing streak to the Rattlers that began in 1998.
Many of the players who accomplished those feats last season are back on the roster for 2019. The only two players who earned significant playing time the Aggies lost were setter Megan Wiggins and middle blocker Lily Walton. Wiggins, who graduated, played setter on the occasions when the Aggies moved starting setter Edie Brewer to the right side. Walton transferred.
N.C. A&T does return 11 players from last season’s 14-12 team that finished tied for second in the MEAC Southern Division with a 7-3 mark. In addition to being blessed with depth, the Aggies will also be one of the more experienced teams in the league with five starters returning.
Edie Brewer (6-0, JR, RS/S, West Chester, Ohio) and Pitt will return for their third year as starters. Brewer has established herself as one of the most versatile players in the league. The Aggies can put her anywhere on the floor and she will excel. Brewer’s primary position is setter where she averaged 7.51 assists per set to rank sixth in the MEAC. She also averaged 1.71 kills, 2.08 digs, 0.44 blocks, 0.33 service aces per set. She had the second-highest hitting percentage on the team at .210.
Pitt led the MEAC in kills per set (3.96) and had four matches of 20 kills or more including a match where she posted 20 kills, three services aces, five digs and a .576 percentage in a 3-1 win over Norfolk State. She also had back-to-back matches with 24 kills including a 24-kill, 10-dig performance against Coppin State. Pitt was 55th in the nation in kills per set.
Another key starter back for the Aggies is MEAC all-rookie team member Andrea Laboy-Rivera (5-5, SO, LIB, Coamo, Puerto Rico).
Laboy-Rivera had an excellent freshman season from her libero position. N.C. A&T is excited about Laboy-Rivera’s second season in Aggieland after she averaged 4.49 digs per set to rank third in the MEAC and 117th in the nation. She was also fourth in the MEAC in aces per set (0.40) and 41st in the nation. Her presence on the back row should make the Aggies defense even stronger.
Two other starters return in Makaylah Elliot (6-0, SR, MB, Cornelius, N.C.) and Christa Wilson (5-9, SR, OH, Raleigh, N.C.). Elliot had an excellent first season at N.C. A&T after transferring in from UNC Pembroke. Elliot averaged 0.51 blocks per set and posted a team-best .215 hitting percentage.
No other player on the team has played as many sets as Wilson. She heads into the season with 247 sets played, and Wilson has the pleasure of being one of only two four-year seniors on the team. Her ability to play well defensively in the back row makes her valuable to the Aggies.
Then there is the Aggies depth. Leila Haynesworth (5-11, SR, OH, Mechanicsville, N.C.) Haynesworth was second on the team in kills per set (2.41). When she enters a match, she is an instant offensive weapon with four matches recording double-figure kills. Macenzie Richards (6-0, SO, RS, Pickerington, Ohio) is another solid player in the Aggies rotation. In her first season with the Aggies, she averaged 1.46 kills and 0.40 blocks per set.
Two others return to the Aggies back row in Kaiyah Haley (5-3, JR, DS, Greensboro, N.C.) and Milanna Morgan (5-4, JR, DS, Lee’s Summit, Mo.). The Aggies hope the development of two young middle blockers in Shaylynn Hall (6-2, SO, MB, Garner, N.C.) and Fatimah Shabazz (6-0, RSO, RS/MB, Cincinnati, Ohio) will continue to improve the team at the net.
During the offseason, the Aggies also added three six-footers, a promising prospect at outside hitter and a setter to replace the role Wiggins played. Tasmyn Fahey (6-0, JR, MB, Christchurch, New Zealand) is a junior college transfer who will add experience and depth at the net for N.C. A&T. Arianna Mackey (6-0, FR, MB, Chesapeake, Va.) and Mallory Porcher (6-0, FR, MB, Orlando, Fla.) were also added as middle blockers.
Carolina Miranda-Suarez (5-10, FR, OH, Salinas, Puerto Rico) could provide the Aggies with offense immediately while Addy Warfield (5-9, FR, S, Winter Springs, Fla.) will likely set her for the next four years.
N.C. A&T opens the season 4 p.m., Friday, Aug. 30 in the Cristi Curtis Volleyball Invitational hosted by Winthrop University against Morehead State.