This team seems to have it all: Experience, promising youth, height, athleticism, a win over a top-10 team, a run of four consecutive conference titles and a 29-1 record this season.
This is Towson, the little Colonial Athletic Association school that could — and believes it can — make the nation stand up and take notice in the NCAA Tournament. Towson has an NCAA RPI of 31 and has won 11 matches in a row.
The Tigers, under 10th-year coach Don Metil, have won 90 of their past 100 matches, a nice round number that spans the four CAA championship seasons from 2019-22. Towson’s lone loss was in a conference match against Elon on October 15.
But Towson, which plays the SEC’s Georgia (22-7) on Thursday in Austin, with the winner getting top-seeded Texas, is just 1-3 in NCAA Tournament matches in its remarkable run.
So what makes Metil & Co. believe 2022 can be different?
Go back to September 10, with Towson playing at Pitt near Metil’s hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The Tigers knocked off the then-No. 7 Panthers 25-12, 25-23, 16-25, 25-18. It was Towson’s first win over a ranked program.
“The win against Pitt was very exciting,” said sophomore outside hitter Victoria Barrett, a first-team all-CAA selection and product of Stafford, Virginia, who transferred from NM State. “We went into that game as the underdog. But once we did beat them, I think we realized we’re a lot more capable of stuff that we didn’t think we were capable of before.”
Added Metil, who the CAA Coach of the Year for the fourth time: “Right after the match, we went back into kind of a secure area, and I just told the girls that win was for every person I was looking at on the squad who was told they were too short, not talented enough. That win was for all those kids.”
Barrett might have been one of those thought to be too short. Listed at 5-foot-9, Barrett has outstanding leaping ability that she attributes to leg strength she developed while spending her youth as a dancer. She averages 3.07 kills per set (seventh in the CAA), hitting .262.
“We knew she was going to be impactful,” Metil said. “Her athleticism is probably unparalleled in our gym … For her to be in six rotations, pass, play defense, she has a pretty high volleyball IQ … she just causes a lot of problems for other teams.”
The same could be said for junior opposite Nina Cajic. The 6-foot-1 Serbian led the conference in hitting at .376 and earned first-team honors. And she is versatile enough that Metil has let her hit from both pins as well as the middle. She also can hit out of the back row when Metil switches to a 5-1 offense.
At one point, when the Tigers were injury-plagued at the setter position, Cajic was training to set.
Fortunately for Metil, the setting has been in good hands. Sarah Jordan, a freshman from Leesburg, Virginia, earned a spot on the CAA All-Rookie team. But Jordan got plenty of help throughout the season from senior Katie McCracken (5.45) and junior Trinity Burge (3.40).
It was Burge who filled in for Jordan during the CAA final while Jordan recovered from an injury. Metil said Jordan will be ready to go for NCAAs.
For all of its offensive capability, Towson’s hallmark might be its defense. Towson ranks third in the nation in opponent hitting percentage (.137), and Cajic, Latvian import Irbe Lazda (6-3), and Willard, Ohio, product Lydia Wiers (6-2, All-CAA first team) and Garland, Texas, product Aayinde Smith (6-0, second team) have created a formidable presence at the net.
It’s not uncommon to see the Tigers set up a triple block, and the attention to defense has paid off.
“Against Northeastern (in the CAA semifinal), we stole five points per set just in blocks,” Metil said, “so it’s paramount.”
Of course, most successful teams have that Swiss Army Knife type of player who contributes in a variety of ways. In Towson’s case she’s Greek.
Grad-student Fay Bakodimou, a product of Athens who has been present for all four of the Tigers’ CAA titles, didn’t earn any all-conference honors this season — she was first-team in 2021 — but she ranked fourth on the team with 2.31 kills per set, led the CAA with 46 total aces, contributed 47 blocks and ranked third on the team with 1.99 digs per set.
“There’s some teams who favor one or two people more, but our team is even all across the board, I think,” Barrett said. “So if one person isn’t having the greatest day, we can rely on someone else or we have other people who can pick up what they’re not giving at that time.”
Whether the Tigers’ blend of abilities can lead to a tournament win or two remains to be seen. But this team has the confidence it can show the nation the win over Pitt was not a one-off proposition. Same with that loss at Elon, when the Tigers lost in five — 16-14 in the fifth — on a Saturday but then beat the Phoenix in four on Sunday.
Against Georgia, “If our first contact allows us to stay in system and that complements what we do with our defense,” Metil said, “We might be able to shock some people.”
In the CAA Championship, Towson beat Stony Brook in four, swept Northeastern and then swept Delaware. For that matter, the Tigers have swept 18 of their matches.
Said Barrett: “I think our team plays its best when we’re under high pressure. I think we like being the underdog because that gives us a chance to prove that we really should be respected more than we are.”
Georgia, which finished third in the SEC, two games back of Florida and Kentucky, is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since. The program has not won a post-season match since 1995. The Bulldogs are led by senior outside Kacie Evans (450 kills, 4.09/set) and junior middle Sophie Fisher (313 kills, .340 hitting percentage).