By Phil Hrichak for VolleyballMag.com
High Point, like every team in the NCAA Tournament, has had its share of challenges and first-time — maybe once-in-a-lifetime? — experiences because of COVID-19.
— Switching from the normal fall season to spring, a move made official by the Big South Conference just days before the Panthers were to end preseason camp in August 2020;
— Wearing face-coverings at all matches and all practices;
— Going 14 months, or more than 400 days, without a competitive match;
— And then, at times, playing in empty or nearly empty gyms;
But the Panthers, 16-0 under third-year coach Ryan Meek, have one experience that seems to be theirs alone … they’re probably the only team in the field of 48 that had a match postponed because of rain.
It happened in mid-March, ahead of two matches scheduled at Charleston Southern.
“There was supposed to be a huge storm coming through,” Meek said, “and their administration decided to close campus at noon (on Thursday, March 18). We were supposed to play at 6, so we had them in a doubleheader the next day.
“We had a match rained out. I’ve never had that happen in volleyball.”
But things worked out just fine, in two ways.
The Panthers won each match in five sets — their only five-setters so far.
They rallied from an 0-2 deficit in the opener, and two kills by sophomore Annie Sullivan (a 6-foot-1 sophomore from Richardson, Texas) ended things. In the nightcap, senior Abby Bottomley (a senior libero from Virginia Beach, Virginia) became just the second player in HPU history, and just the sixth in the Big South, to surpass 2,000 career digs. And High Point improved to 12-0.
“The nice part about the trip,” said Meek, who on April 7 was named the Big South coach of the year, “was we got kind of a free day in Charleston to go explore a little bit.
“It wasn’t the end of the world.”
The move from fall to spring also seems to have helped the Panthers, who have a primary rotation of 10 and, in general, a young team.
Bottomley — named the Big South player of the year, who leads High Point with 285 digs, 5.18/set — is the senior leader and gets defensive support from sophomores Macy Miller (Mission Viejo, Calif,) and Maria Miggins (The Woodlands, Texas).
Sullivan leads with 169 kills, 3.13/set. Juniors Gabrielle Idlebird (Mesquite, Texas) and Mackenzi Thornburg (Timberlake, N.C.) and sophomores Madison Smith, who had 153 kills (Hilliard, Ohio) and Kaley Rammelsberg (Westerville, Ohio) lead the offense, and sophomores Maggie Salley (Lexington, S.C.) and Sophee Mink (DeForest, Wis.) complete the cast.
Sullivan, Rammelsberg and Smith joined Bottomley as first-team All-Big South selections; Idlebird (who leads with 63 blocks, 1.15/set) was second-team; and Miggins and Thornburg were honorable-mention.
“We were just so used to not being together all summer and then getting back to campus and within two weeks, playing some of the best competition we’re going to play all season,” Bottomley said of a normal camp.
“It was really weird to have an entire semester to practice together before a season, But I do think it was very beneficial, especially with having such a young team. I feel it was really a time for us to grow and become more cohesive.”
Meek said the delay didn’t alter goals, expectations or his approach.
“Every year, we go in with the goal to win the Big South Conference, and that didn’t change this year … We just focused on being the best we could every day.
“We didn’t get too far ahead of ourselves because we knew at any time, Covid could hit, and we’d be missing some kids.
“We used to joke with them in the fall and early in the spring — you know in the arcade, that claw that comes down and grabs the toy? We would joke it’s like the COVID claw could come down and grab four of you, and everyone else would need to step up.”
When the season did start, February 4 at Presbyterian, no one was quite sure what to expect.
“I think there were maybe a little nerves, just because it had been so long,” Sullivan said. “But I think most people on the team were just so ready to finally have a game. I don’t think any of us had ever gone that long without playing a volleyball match.
“So, I think we were all just super-excited … to play someone else because it had been so long.”
In the opener, High Point and Presbyterian split the first two sets, then the Panthers took control, hitting .609 in the third set and .438 in the fourth close out a 3-1 victory.
A run of dominance followed. High Point swept Presbyterian the next day, then won seven of its next eight matches by 3-0 scores. Then came the two five-setters against Charleston Southern and later three straight sweeps. The unbeaten regular season is the first in program history.
Now, the tournament bubble in Omaha, Nebraska, and a first-round match April 14 against American Athletics Conference-champion Central Florida await. High Point will be making its fifth tournament appearance and fourth in the last five years, but is still seeking its first NCAA Tournament victory.
The Panthers are one of just six unbeatens in the field (along with Jackson State, Towson, UNLV, Western Kentucky and top-seeded Wisconsin) and, at 16 matches, they have the nation’s second-longest winning streak, behind Western Kentucky.
Bottomley said that after the selection show, maybe 80 percent of the team went back and watched UCF’s match against Temple in the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
“All of us are just ready to go,” she said.
UCF is 16-1 and has won eight in a row. The Knights went 8-0 in the AAC season, led by league player of the year McKenna Melville. The junior from Eagan, Minnesota, has 275 kills (.458/set) and her next closest teammate, Anne-Marie Watson, had 138. Nerissa Moravec leads with 77 blocks (1.38/set), and Arianna Arjomand leads with 197 digs (3.34/set). UCF’s Todd Dagenais shared coach-of-the-year honors with Temple’s Bakeer Ganesharatnam.
The winner gets Purdue.