Glance around the rafters of Campbell’s John W. Pope, Jr. Convocation Center and Gilbert Craig Gore Arena, and there are — as is customary in college arenas around the country — banners recognizing the achievements of various athletic teams.
One team, however, is conspicuously absent: Campbell’s women’s volleyball team.
The Fighting Camels don’t have a conference regular-season title or a Big South Tournament title in their history. They also lack an NCAA Tournament berth.
Coach Greg Goral, in his ninth season with the program — more than any previous women’s volleyball coach at the school — doesn’t need to be reminded. He sees the banner collection every day from his office on the arena’s concourse.
There actually is one volleyball banner: The Camels earned a berth in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship in 2017. That is of little consolation to Goral, especially knowing Campbell has built arguably the best athletic program in the Big South, with its teams regularly hoisting conference championship trophies.
So this year’s women’s volleyball team is aiming to hang a banner that is a little more meaningful, and it took a big step in that direction last weekend.
Last week, the Camels swept High Point to avenge a 3-2 loss to the Panthers earlier in the season and move into a share of first place in the Big South at 11-1.
With only four matches remaining in the regular season, Campbell, which plays at USC Upstate and UNC Asheville over the weekend, is on the cusp of finally raising a conference-championship banner.
“It feels great, honestly,” said outside hitter Lailah Green, a junior from Bakersfield, California. “We have worked so hard to get to this point, so it’s really rewarding seeing everything pay off and seeing the work that we’ve been putting in in the gym pay off.”
Sophomore outside hitter Chloe Cook, the Big South Freshman of the Year and all-conference second-teamer in 2020, said the Camels’ success this season is rooted in last season.
The 2020 campaign, of course, began in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. Classes at Campbell initially were conducted online, and when the players finally arrived on campus, they had to quarantine for two weeks.
In those two weeks, Cook said, the players developed a close bond. The togetherness and the energy they created, she said, has spilled over into this season, particularly with the majority of last season’s roster returning.
“I have never been on a team where all 14 girls just truly loved each other and truly are good friends with each other,” Cook said.
That attitude, she said, starts with the senior class. Fifth-year setter Madee Miner and seniors Kate Menz, Grace Kane, Sarah Colla and Hailey Wilson, Cook said, have instilled a sense or urgency in the rest of the team, spurring them on to believe they can achieve something never done in program history.
Campbell has had some close calls in the recent past: The Camels finished second in the Big South in 2020. In 2019, they finished third in the conference but reached the tournament final, where they were swept by Winthrop.
So before the 2021 season started, Cook said, the players sat down with Goral and his staff to talk about what they wanted to change so the Camels could get … um … over the hump.
One of the main topics was improving on defense, particularly serve receive. Winning the serve-receive battle, Green said, was something the coaching staff emphasized.
The Camels have delivered, ranking second in the conference in opponent aces (1.16 per set).
To wit, sophomore Claranne Fechter has stepped to the forefront. Fechter was named to the Big South All-Freshman Team as well as second-team all conference. This season, she leads the conference in total digs (423) and is second in digs per set (4.65).
Goral said Fechter “can cover roughly half the court by herself.”
“She really stepped up this year, and everyone followed suit,” Green said of the libero from Powell, Ohio. “In practice, it’s crazy because we’ll have, like, minute rallies, two-minute rallies because every girl is focused on doing the right things.
“So when it comes to games, that directly translates.”
Added Cook: “Our defense is really sound. Claranne does a really good job of leading the back row. Turning those great digs and great sets into points and kills is something we really have been focusing on.”
To put that in basketball parlance, Campbell has watched its defense turn into offense. And it is an offense that is greatly diversified. The Camels don’t rely on one or two people to get the bulk of the kills.
Part of that is a result of Goral’s design. In his 6-2 offense, he subs in his setters for his middles and allows his outside hitters to attack from both pins as well as serve.
“It keeps teams guessing where we’re going with the ball,” Goral said.
Setters Miner (453 assists) and Emily Mitter (390) have made sure to do their part in spreading around the sets. In all matches — the Camels are 16-8 — Cook, from Nacogdoches, Texas, leads the way with 240 kills. Green is right behind with 238. Colla also has more than 200 kills (208), and junior middle Melody Paige isn’t far behind (180).
Paige, in fact, is the player around whom Goral often designs his offense. She was on the all-tournament team in all four events in which the Camels participated in the preseason.
In Big South matches, Colla leads the way with 139 kills (nearly three per set), with Cook (134) and Green (116) also eclipsing 100 kills in conference matches.
“That’s literally the best thing about our team,” Green said. “(Opponents) don’t know who we are going to set or when we are going to set them. Everyone at every position is able to get a kill or do what they need to do to get a teammate the ball.
“Melody Paige … sometimes her hitting percentages are just mind-blowing to me.”
For the record, Paige ranks fourth in the Big South in hitting percentage at .304. Wilson is seventh in the conference at .280 and has 101 total kills.
Junior middle Ananda Patterson also has 101 kills. Cook said Patterson and Colla have been key to helping the Camels expand their attacking options.
Colla was a top-100 recruit coming out of high school. Though only 5-foot-10, she is capable of touching 10 feet and “hits as hard as a lot of guys do,” Goral said.
Colla was the go-to earlier in her career, but teams were able to focus on her. And her propensity for trying to hit through bigger players rather than use finesse and guile when needed made her less effective.
This year, paired with Miner and finally adjusted to hitting from the right side, she has taken off and produced the kind of volleyball Goral always knew was in her.
“I’m really proud of Sarah,” Cook said. “She’s always been a leader by example but this year has just peaked. She’s the one that every other team is like, ‘We have to shut her down.’ And I think that means a lot of teams respect her because they want to stop her first.
“Ananda Patterson has had to bounce back between middle and right side, and she does it with a smile on her face.”
And speaking of defense turning into offense, Campbell has had plenty of that on the block as well. The Camels rank second in the Big South in opponent hitting percentage (.156)
Individually, the Camels have six players who have at least 30 blocks this season: Paige (80), Wilson (53), Patterson (52), Colla (44), Cook (33) and Green (30).
“They say defense wins championships, and that’s a big piece to what we do, because we’re just not 6-3 across the front row,” Goral said.
The X’s and O’s have helped Campbell into position for its first conference title — and coveted banner in the arena. Intangibles have helped, too.
Besides the family-like atmosphere the team has created, Goral has helped the players focus on their mental game as well as getting tougher.
In competitive drills during practice, Goral often has 6-foot-6 assistant Ryan Mason, a former setter at Cal State-Northridge, line up with the second team. That forces the first-teamers to face a hitter who will bring power and pace, and, as a result, produces a little more grit in the lineup.
Communication has been another big part of the formula. That, Goral said, keeps everyone on the same page and allows them to stay within the framework of the offense or defense when a point gets chaotic.
Goral also is keen on keeping his players on an even keel: allowing them to revel in victories while making sure they realize one win isn’t the be all and end all.
Take the aftermath of last weekend’s win over High Point, for example. Certainly climbing to the top of the conference was cause for celebration, but Goral made sure his players didn’t dwell on it for too long.
“As a team and coaches, we said we’re going to take Saturday night and Sunday to celebrate and say, ‘Heck yeah we got that win,’ ” Cook said. “But starting Monday, nothing has changed … We watched our film from last weekend, and (Goral) said, ‘Great job, but, honestly, you haven’t really done anything yet. You just won another volleyball game.’
“We’re definitely proud of ourselves, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Added Green: (Goral) tells us that composure is everything. He harps on staying level-headed. In those tough situations, in those game-play situations … we work on having a clear mind and knowing you can do it and trusting your skills.
“And also just playing for each other. We all are a really close group of girls, and we really love each other a lot so we stay focused on playing for each other and playing for Campbell. This is bigger than us.”
And that, Cook said, is what would make hanging a banner extra special.
Yes, they could get those conference champion T-shirts and perhaps post pictures on social media displaying their championship rings. What would make it really memorable, she said, is achieving those things with this particular group.
“To win something as big as regular season or the (Big South) tournament would just mean so so very much to all of us because we do it for each other,” she said. “It would symbolize that we did it as a team and we’re so proud of each other.”
Goral is optimistic. This is his most veteran team, with mostly upperclassmen playing the key roles. If they continue on their current trajectory, he might just look out his office window in the spring and see a new banner in the rafters.
“I think from what we did this past weekend,” he said, “it’s definitely more of a possibility than it ever has been.”