By Phil Hrichak for VolleyballMag.com
North Carolina A&T waited long and worked hard to get where it is — in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. But Coach Hal Clifton, now in his 10th season, said he saw this coming in 2018.
That was when Clifton took a young team to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament final for the first time since 2005. A&T — with Edie Brewer, Fatimah Shabazz, Courteney Pitt, Andrea Laboy-Rivera and Macenzie Richards then playing as freshmen and sophomores — lost that match 3-0, as Howard won its fourth straight title and the MEAC’s automatic NCAA berth.
But Clifton said he saw a vision of A&T’s future that night.
“Edie and Fatimah were part of that team, and the way they felt after that loss, you just knew our time was coming,” Clifton said. “You could see in their eyes the hurt of losing that much. Even though we had a fantastic year and broke a lot of milestones, they still felt like they left something on the table.
“And I think from that point, after walking out of the gym at Howard, we knew within the next two years that we would have a championship because you could see how they felt about it.”
The vision became reality April 3, when A&T defeated Coppin State in four sets to win its first MEAC Tournament. A&T will now take on Rice, an at-large selection from Conference USA, in the NCAA first round in Omaha on Wednesday.
After a few days to reflect on the MEAC title and NCAA berth, Brewer, a 6-foot senior from West Chester, Ohio, and Shabazz, a 6-foot redshirt junior from Cincinnati, were still savoring the success.
“You know we’re still just very excited about it, we’ve been working very hard for it, and it’s super nice that we trusted the process, and it finally worked out in our favor,” said Brewer, the two-time MEAC player of the year and the most-outstanding player in this year’s tournament.
Shabazz, also a first-team All-MEAC selection, added: “The whole thing happened quick, so I’m just kind of still on that level as far as like ‘We really won?’ It’s surreal.”
And, said Clifton: “It has been pretty amazing, just being here for 10 years and knowing what we’ve been through and knowing what was at the end of the road. Just being able to look at the championship trophy in my office really just makes me smile every time I look over there and see it. It reminds me of all the hard work that these young ladies have put in…. The excitement of achieving that huge goal is really impressive, and it’s something they’ll never forget … ”
On their journey to the NCAA, the Aggies (11-1) survived a canceled trip, canceled matches, some minor injuries and a marathon MEAC semifinal.
A&T lost out on a week-long trip to Italy in March 2020 because of COVID-19. Two days before the team was scheduled to fly, university officials suspended all international travel. The trip would have combined volleyball matches and clinics, travel, sightseeing and cultural experiences.
“We would have been in the air to Italy when everything changed, and it got shut down,” Clifton said. “It hurt, but we knew the university made the right decision. But don’t give up hope. We’re going to find a way to make this trip happen. It’s something that’s really important for our players and our program, and it’s not forgotten.”
Players eventually dispersed, then returned to campus in August for practices, preparation and a combination of virtual and in-person classes.
In the gym, Clifton welcomed back a veteran crew, with outside hitter Pitt, now a 6-foot-1 senior (Farmville, N.C.), joining Brewer and Shabazz among the leaders.
Also back were juniors Laboy-Rivera (5-5 libero, Coamo, Puerto Rico); Richards (6-0 right side, Pickerington, Ohio); Shaylynn Hall (6-1 middle blocker, Raleigh); Nadia Montalban-El Hiriche (5-6 libero, Granada, Spain); and Amalie Rupertova (6-0 outside hitter, Tlucen, Czech Republic).
Sophomores Addy Warfield (5-9 setter, Winter Springs, Fla.) and Mallory Porcher (6-0 middle blocker, Orlando, Fla.) complete the primary rotation.
“We had one of our best training segments in the fall,” Clifton said. “Every day, the energy level, the excitement … their intensity and their level of training was tremendous. The growth that we saw it was amazing.”
But it wasn’t all work.
Clifton said that he and his assistant coaches, Blaine Tendler and Ariel Newman, made an effort to put a little fun into each practice. One day, that involved karaoke volleyball.
“It’s always a hoot with us,” Brewer said. “(That time), everybody got to pick a karaoke song, and while everybody else was working on passing or serving, you had to go and perform a little karaoke. I really enjoyed that (because) I got to perform Beyonce.”
Clifton said: “They’re always singing and dancing…. We play music during practice, and I was like ‘Hey, why don’t we do a karaoke?’ As a coach, you get to learn more about them by the song that they pick. It was a lot of fun to see their personalities shine.”
On the court, A&T had some early fits and starts. The first three matches, all nonconference, were canceled because of Covid protocols, with a false positive test forcing one cancellation.
The Aggies lost their opener to East Carolina, but hit stride in MEAC play. They swept Norfolk State twice in mid-February, then followed with three more sweeps and weathered two more cancellations.
Along the way, they set a school record for hitting percentage against South Carolina State (.644), and honored Brewer (2,000 career assists, 100 career aces) and Pitt (1,000 career kills) for individual accomplishments. A&T ended the regular season by defeating East Carolina in five sets, their first victory against the Pirates since 2003.
Brewer ranks second in the MEAC in service aces per set (0.67), fourth in assists (6.94) and ninth in digs (2.52). Shabazz leads the MEAC with 3.85 kills per set and is fourth in hitting percentage (.382), and Pitt, after overcoming some early injuries, has 88 kills (2.32/set).
In the MEAC Tournament, A&T outlasted Delaware State in a three-hour, five-set semifinal that Clifton and Brewer called one of the longest matches of their careers.
The next challenge, 16-5 Rice, is an opponent that Clifton called “formidable.”
“They’re a good program,” he said. “They got an at-large bid, which says a lot.
“But we found a couple of areas where we really think we match up well against them, and some areas we can hopefully exploit. I think we’re just as physical as they are at the net, which I think adds up in our favor.
“But we’re going to have to play well. We’re going to have to be prepared, and I think our girls are up for the challenge.”
Rice, which went 12-0 in the Conference USA regular season, made its biggest splash this season when it dealt Texas its only defeat.
Coach Genny Volpe and the Owls went to the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Once again, the leader has been senior outside Nicole Lennon, who has become a dominant player and was named the Conference USA player for the second time.
She has 330 kills (4.29/set). Her next closest teammate is sophomore outside Ellie Bichelmeyer with 179. Lennon also has 62 blocks, 25 solo.
Sophomore middle Satasha Kostelecky leads with 70 blocks, 12 solo, and has 97 kills. Junior middle Anota Adekunle, also on the C-USA first team, has 168 kills and 50 blocks. Freshman Nia Cardell has 246 digs, junior Elizabeth LaBue 237, and Lennon has 220. Junior setter Carly Graham, also a C-USA first-teamer averages 10.44 assists.
The winner gets the Big Ten’s Penn State on Thursday.