The Elon University volleyball team didn’t have a glamorous end to its regular season, having lost four straight matches, but the Phoenix managed to sneak into the Southern Conference Tournament as the eighth and final seed.
Key injuries to junior and sophomore middle blockers Kris Harris and Catherine Head were supposed to ravage Elon’s depth up front, but the emergence of freshman Ally Karle could give the Phoenix a shot at a rebirth in the postseason.
“Ally has become a huge part of our offense and continues to put up a block that has helped our defense a ton,” said senior right-side hitter Cali Estes. “It feels like she is getting better and more confident with every game."
The stats back up Karle’s impact. She put up a career-high 18 kills and five blocks against Furman University Nov. 9, and added 10 kills and four blocks against Davidson College in Elon’s last regular season game Nov. 16. On Nov. 11, she earned the SoCon Freshman of the Week award.
“Ally and Danielle Smith have both filled the gap at the middle blocker position,” said assistant coach Tina Readling. “They each bring completely different strengths to the position, and each offers a different look as our opponents prepare their defense. Our setters have been working to get the ball to them in the middle to highlight their effectiveness offensively."
Karle and the Phoenix will face top-seeded Georgia Southern University in the first round of the SoCon Tournament. The Eagles beat Elon 3-1 and 3-0 in their two regular season matchups.
With the Eagles winning their second consecutive SoCon regular season title, Elon is the obvious underdog. But, conference standings were so tight during the regular season that Elon has as many wins overall as second-seeded Furman does. Elon played five more matches than the Paladins during the year.
“We have players in each position that are capable of making a huge difference in matches, and we will need each player to give a little more in order to push through to the next round,” Readling said. “To advance in the tournament, you simply have to be the best team on that day on that court. With no undefeated conference records in SoCon volleyball this year, any team can be beaten.”
This postseason is the last chance Estes and senior defensive specialist Maggie Reichard have at a conference title, and it's Elon's last chance to win the conference title before departing for the Colonial Athletic Association next season. Estes is second on the team in kills and assists, and Reichard leads the team in digs. Their production and on-court leadership will be crucial for Elon to have a shot at upsetting Georgia Southern. Estes said finishing conference play strong and winning a conference title would mean everything to her.
While Georgia Southern seems a daunting task, since Sept. 13, Elon has gone 6-1 in five set games with its only loss coming at the hands of Davidson on Saturday. All of the late-game experience Karle and the other freshmen have been getting might prove to be valuable at the start of the tournament Friday.
“Our first-year players have continued to progress on a huge curve throughout the season,” Readling said. “Their understanding of our offensive and defensive schemes has become more second-nature and less new to them. We are still improving each day in practice and learning from every match, and our staff is looking forward to seeing what this team can continue to accomplish and how they can continue to grow as we head into the post-season.”
Defensive specialist Morgan Maner and outside hitter Kayla Agae, both freshmen, were bright spots in Elon’s difficult loss to Davidson. Maner had four assists and three service aces, and Agae had six kills and three blocks.
"The team and the coaches have helped us get prepared mentally and physically this year,” Agae said. “We have a very competitive environment in practices and we watch film and discuss what needs to be done in order to be successful against our opponents. They have pushed us to be the best that we can be every time we are on the court."
Elon has a tough task in topping Georgia Southern to kick off the SoCon volleyball tournament, and the stakes are high with Estes and Reichard playing to continue their Phoenix careers. But since Karle, Maner and Agae have three seasons ahead of them, the future could be bright for Elon in the CAA, regardless of Friday’s outcome.