Looking for a good underdog story in the 2021 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament? Look no further than The Citadel.
The Bulldogs finished 14-11 overall, just 7-9 in the Southern Conference during the regular season. But they brought a bit of sports history to the military school in Charleston, S.C.
As the No. 7 seed, The Citadel rolled through the SoCon tourney all the way to the championship, sweeping Wofford in the title match. It was the program’s first conference title, which came with its first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs, No. 213 in the NCAA RPI, drew the ACC’s Georgia Tech, the No. 8 overall seed, Friday in the opening round in Atlanta. The winner of that match plays the winner of the match between Western Kentucky and South Carolina.
“I was just thinking (Sunday) before I got to practice, I was like, ‘I still can’t believe I’m practicing right now for the NCAA Tournament,’ ” said Sharlissa de Jesus, a 5-foot-9, fifth-year outside hitter from Guayama, Puerto Rico.
“That’s the one thing I thought about the whole Thanksgiving break. And I still can’t believe it.”
Fourth-year coach Dave Zelenock said he builds his team for the postseason. Naturally, winning a regular-season title, he said, would be nice, but his main focus is making sure the team is playing its best at the end of the season.
The Bulldogs accomplished that, building momentum as the SoCon tourney progressed. They beat UNC Greensboro in five sets in the opener just six days after losing to UNCG in four in the regular-season finale. Then they beat Samford in four before sweeping Wofford to take the SoCon’s NCAA bid.
How remarkable is it that the Bulldogs are in the tournament?
From 1999 through 2017, the program won a total of 16 SoCon matches and had nine seasons without a conference win. Zelenock took over in 2018 and the team finished 12-19 overall and 4-12, the most league wins in its history. In 2019, the records were 11-20 and 4-12, and last spring 9-12 and 7-9. The Bulldogs were 8-9 in the SoCon this season.
de Jesus continued to build her legacy as perhaps the finest player in program history. She is the school’s all-time leader in kills with more than 1,800 and was named first-team all-conference for the second consecutive year. This year she’s got 428 kills, tied for 45th in the nation.
“Year after year she has shown growth,” Zelenock said. “She’s always been good. Her freshman year … I coached against her in her first college match. She was good then, but I could see holes in her game.
“But she’s grown every year. As a freshman, she wasn’t a very good line hitter, and she was terrible at pass-to-hit. Now there’s really not a lot of holes in her game at this point. She’s just really become a complete player.”
On the younger end of the roster, Ali Ruffin was named SoCon Freshman of the Year. She averages nearly three kills and three digs per set.
Freshman setter Belle Hogan also was named to the all-freshman team. She averages 9.75 assists and 2.60 digs per set.
Junior middles Gina Delancey and Maddy Cardenas helped to shore up an area of deficiency. Delancey averages nearly a block per set and hits .257, and Cardenas also hits .257 while providing solid defense.
“Our middle game last year was a huge liability,” Zelenock said. “We felt like last year we had good pins … we just didn’t have a middle game. Those two have come up huge for us going from last year to this year.”
If the Bulldogs want to compete with Georgia Tech, Zelenock said, they will have to continue their consistent passing. That was the one aspect of the team’s game the coach believes has been solid all season.
“Our outsides were doing a pretty nice job,” he said. “And the basics of everyone serving to the front row outside, we didn’t have any breakdowns there. And it made most of the (opposing) coaches have to go away from that, then our secondary passers were doing the job. … then people would have to go to the third passer. Our passing held really strong and made it challenging for people to get us out of system.”
Added DeJesus: “I think it was more we were able to trust each other and each other’s roles on the team. At the beginning of the season, that’s something we were really working on, and throughout the season it got better, which led us to this.”
Zelenock knows what awaits his players even if they don’t. He was an assistant at Central Michigan in 2011 when the Chippewas got sent to Champaign to play Illinois, which ultimately went to the national-championship match.
“Having 4,000 people hate you at once is a different feeling,” he said. “You can feel it in your chest. We’ve talked about that. … But these are kids who go to a military school, so they’re pretty tough.”
de Jesus said the Bulldogs will try to make the most of their first NCAA experience.
“Definitely just thinking we have nothing to lose,” she said. “It’s our first time, our first experience. We’re just going to think about just going out there and playing our game and enjoying the game we play.”