If you’re looking for the secret sauce to this Towson Tiger team, the one that stands 28-2 and set all manner of records and became a program for which there has been no precedent in the Colonial Athletic Association, you won’t find it in the headlines.
You won’t find it in the gaudy stat lines of CAA Player of the Year Marrisa Wonders, or the highlight tape of Rookie of the Year Lydia Wiers. You won’t find it in any specific kill — and there were a great many of them — from All-CAA first-teamer Olivia Finckel.
You might find it in a moment so brief you’d be forgiven if you missed it, from a player that casual Towson or CAA followers may very well have never heard of. In the semifinals of the CAA Tournament last weekend, held at Hofstra, Towson coach Don Metil called upon freshman Ally Townsend.
Townsend, a 5-foot-4 libero from Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, had appeared in just three sets in the previous month. Metil called her in. Townsend answered with an ace, a few passes. And then she was taken out, never to appear again as Towson beat Elon in four and then swept James Madison in the next day’s championship, securing the Tigers’ first NCAA Tournament berth since 2004.
“For us it’s nothing on the court,” Metil said of what makes this Towson team, the first to go 16-0 in conference history, so special. “It’s not physicality, it’s not the 5-1 versus the 6-2. This group, from our starting six to our 21st athlete on the team, everyone has buy-in.
“Everyone, I’m not going to say, likes their role, but accepts their role on the team. These kids are just ready to go when their name is called and they’re performing at a standard that our starters would be performing at.”
Buy-in or not, there is, of course, the tangible elements outside of the ambiguous alchemy that sets championship caliber teams apart. There is no replacing a culture of total buy-in, of everyone accepting their roles. But there is also hardly any replacing a talent like Wonders, who has put together one of the more remarkable seasons in Tiger history.
In pointing to her value, Metil didn’t even mention the 1,199 assists Wonders, a senior from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, has tallied this season, a huge number that has come in mostly three-set matches. Instead, he pointed to the fact that all five hitters on this Towson team — Annie Ertz, Emily Jarome, Silvia Grassini, Olivia Finckel, Lydia Wiers — finished with more than 200 kills apiece.
Towson’s only losses were in the preseason, falling to Rutgers of the Big Ten and Coastal Carolina of the Sun Belt. The Tigers swept Princeton, which will play in the NCAA Tournament as the Ivy League representative, beat America East-champion UAlbany, and then lost just eight sets in those 16 CAA victories.
Jarome, a sophomore from Wilmington, Delaware, leads with 322 kills (3.16/set) and has 24 aces. Finckel, a senior from nearby Baltimore, has 310 kills (3.04/set), is hitting .246, and is second on the team with 114 blocks. Ertz, a senior from Elm Grove, Wisconsin, has 261 kills (2.63/set), 21 aces and 59 blocks, nine solo. Wiers, a freshman from Willard, Ohio, has 249 kills (2.59/set), is hitting .409, and has 111 blocks. And Grassini, a senior from Padua, Italy, has 225 kills (2.18/set), hits .370, and leads with 124 blocks.
And then there’s Wonders, who is averaging 11.99 assists, has 13 aces, and is second on the team only to libero Camryn Allen with 296 digs (2.87/set). Allen, a junior from Ellicott City, has 394 digs (3.83/set) and leads the team with 37 aces.
“Our ball distribution is some of the most even across the net that I’ve been a part of in my 17 years,” Metil said. “Everyone’s walking away with 25, 30 attempts in a three-set match and it’s just — when all five of your hitters are over 200 kills on the season, that’s pretty good ball distribution.”
It’s possible he’s never seen ball distribution quite like the way Wonders has done it because Metil had never before run a 5-1 system with this group of players, with Wonders at the core. For the previous three years, because he was so deep in talent in opposite hitters, Metil ran a 6-2, with Wonders splitting her setting duties.
The new system, however, was not met with total and immediate success.
After a shaky performance in serve-receive against Rutgers in September during the fourth match of the season, Metil, a self-admitted natural pessimist, hoped for a .500 season. Simply making the CAA Tournament would be accomplishment enough.
But then they bounced back against Virginia later that night and swept a top-50 Princeton team the next day, “and I was like ‘OK, maybe we can do something special,’ ” Metil said. “Ever since then we’ve been improving.”
They have been improving to the tune of a 22-match win streak, both a school and conference record. Improving to an NCAA Tournament berth that has been, as Metil, said, a “long time coming.”
Fifteen years ago was the last time the Tigers appeared in the Big Dance. Metil was a middle school teacher then, just 200 steps away from the Towson campus in Maryland. He’d come to watch the games sometimes as his mentor, Chris Riley, was coaching the Tigers to a 144-54 record in six years.
“It’s just pretty cool that the program I had my eye on in the early 2000s, now I’m the coach of,” Metil said. “Full circle.”
Where the Tigers go from here will be announced Sunday night when the NCAA Tournament bracket is unveiled. There will be a watch party, celebrations, reflecting upon a season that will go down as Towson’s best to date. And then there will be more matches to play, beginning on Thursday with the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Metil was hoping to make a season-ending tournament, after all.
He just set his sights on the wrong one.