For two hours and 10 minutes, the Elon University volleyball team was the underdog versus Radford University Sept. 18. The Phoenix, holders of a 4-7 record at the time, managed to find their mettle and ground out the match into a decisive fifth set.
The Highlanders, with an 8-3 record at the time, had the advantage on paper. With 6-foot-4 sophomore middle blocker Megan Short on the frontline and two dynamic outside hitters, Radford looked to hand Elon its third fifth-set loss of the season.
But then Elon kicked it into high gear and hasn’t shifted from it as conference matches have started.
The Phoenix stunned the Highlanders by jumping out to a 12-3 lead, with six of those points coming from sophomore outside hitter Megan Gravley. Elon won the type of game they used to struggle with: a nail-biter versus top competition.
“After being defeated in such close games, it definitely felt great to get a five-set win versus Radford, especially on our home court,” said senior defensive specialist Maggie Reichard. “The win definitely gave us a lot of confidence going into the 49er Invitational.”
Whatever Elon found in that fifth set, they maintained it throughout the 49er Invitational, a yearly volleyball tournament in Charlotte. The team only lost two sets in the three games they played. The improvement has been obvious.
“I think we have done a great job of getting better every time we step on the court and playing better under pressure,” said senior right-side hitter Cali Estes. “We are getting better at competing and making every point matter, which has helped us be successful in the last few games.”
The strong showing put the Phoenix above .500 for the first time this season, but the real test for Elon is already underway — a five-game road trip featuring traditional Southern Conference powers such as Georgia Southern University and Davidson College.
“Playing on the road is always a little more challenging,” Reichard said. “However, we are very excited to start conference play whether we play home or away. We are not predetermining any wins or losses for these next two weekends and are going into every game focused on what we need to do to win and getting better every time we play.”
If Elon comes out of this stretch with a winning record, the team is set up nicely for a chance at a high seed in its last Southern Conference tournament: Eight of their next 12 games are at Alumni Gym, where the Phoenix has a 4-1 record so far this season. The mindset will remain the same for Elon.
“We prepare for every game the same whether it is home or away,” Estes said. “Obviously, it is more fun for us to be on our home court, but we are excited to start conference and compete against SoCon teams no matter what gym we are in.”
Elon’s best chance to compete with the elite of the Southern Conference starts and ends with junior middle blocker Kris Harris. Harris leads the team in points, kills, hitting percentage and total blocks, but she can’t do it alone.
“Kris is having an amazing season,” said head coach Mary Tendler. “She has made huge contributions every match on offense and defense. We do have a lot of other players that have stepped up in matches, but we are still looking for some individuals to be more consistent.”
Harris scored a game-high 24 points against Radford and the match that might have lit a fire inside the Phoenix. The timing is perfect, as the Southern Conference might be as deep as it has ever been in volleyball.
“We are simply a better team right now than we were three to four weeks ago,” Tendler said. “Our team will continue to improve as the season goes along. There is no doubt about that.”