Losing the last game of the season is difficult for any team to handle. It’s even tougher when you realize how close you were to winning it all.

The Elon University volleyball team fell to Furman 3-0 (25-19, 25-22, 25-15) in three tightly contested sets last November in the Southern Conference Volleyball quarterfinals. Just two days after that, Furman lost by a mere two points in the final set of the championship game.

“Sure, it was the last match of the season for us, but it’s much more than that,” said sophomore outside hitter Megan Gravley.  “I think it gave us motivation for this season. This year, we want to end our season with a win.”

Although most teams would be content just getting back into the tournament, the Phoenix knows what kind of talent it has heading into the 2013 season. Because of that, a championship is the goal.

“We are chasing rings,” said sophomore setter Ana Nicksic. “Winning the SoCon tournament would be so awesome. After every team meeting, practice or event I feel like we are getting one step closer.”

Gravley and Nicksic were part of a talented yet inexperienced core for the Phoenix in 2012, but both earned spots on the SoCon all-freshman team. Gravley placed 10th in the conference in kills while Nicksic placed seventh in assists. With a year of playing time under their belts, they could be even better in 2013.

“Everybody returning got valuable game experience during the 2012 season,” said assistant coach Jennifer Fry. “Along with that experience, our returners are also bringing strong leadership.”

Leadership will be especially necessary to help out the impressive freshman class arriving this fall. Sydel Curry, Morgan Maner, Ally Karle and Kayla Agae have been winners all throughout their high school careers. The coaching staff knew they would make an impact, but they didn’t expect that impact to show itself so quickly.

“All four of our freshmen are doing very well,” Fry said. “They came in in great shape, have been working hard and are learning both our defensive and offensive systems. We look forward to their progress.”

This newfound depth — along with an imposing defense that led the SoCon in blocks — gives the Phoenix a perfect opportunity to get back into the tournament. How far they go depends on how they fare against the traditional powers of SoCon volleyball — Georgia Southern, Samford and Furman.

For most teams, games against the best in the conference are viewed with the utmost importance. Those are the games circled on the calendar. Elon takes a different approach.

“The most important game on the schedule is the next one,” Fry said. “No game is more important than another. We diligently prepare for every team since losing to a top ranked team affects us the same as losing to a lower ranked team.”

Elon, Chattanooga and UNCG were separated by a total of two conference wins last year, which affected their seeding in the tournament. One losing streak could mean the end of the season considering how competitive the conference can be. The Phoenix is fully aware of this. With the stakes so high for each game this season, Elon’s preseason scrimmages have had a tournament atmosphere.

“Preseason is a physical challenge but it is just as much of a mental challenge,” Gravley said. “No matter how many times you go through it — whether it’s your first preseason or your fourth preseason — you never get used to it. This year, our practices are centered around that goal of a championship and it motivates us to work hard in scrimmages and drills. Our coaches challenge us to work hard and have that competitive attitude at all times.”

The word “championship,” as sacred as it is in the realm of sports, is something the players seem comfortable mentioning in conversation. Preseason aspirations aside, the true test of championship mettle will come in October, when the Phoenix faces the toughest stretch of their conference schedule. Two home games against Georgia Southern (Oct. 12) and Furman (Oct. 25) will be measuring sticks to see how much the team has grown.

“With the talent that this team has, they have the ability to push one another at each position in every practice,” Fry said. “The thing the team must do this season to be successful is to continue to push each other at a high level.”

The Elon volleyball team will play its final match as a member of the Southern Conference in 2013. Whether that match ends in a win or a loss remains to be seen.

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