WINSTON-SALEM — Facing a familiar opponent, albeit in a different setting, the Elon University volleyball team knew what to prepare for.
Keys in practice all week were centered around stopping Western Carolina University’s outside hitters, particularly some strong hitters on the left side and a lefty that proved to be powerful.
Elon executed its plan against the attack, but found flaws in its passing game in a 3-0 loss (26-24, 25-13, 25-21), a matchup of old Southern Conference foes on Sept. 19 at the Deacon Classic hosted by Wake Forest University.
Jo-Leigh Vervelde, a left-hander, and Caitlin Piechota, who patrolled the left side for much of the evening, led Western Carolina with nine kills apiece.
“It was something we planned for,” Elon head coach Mary Tendler said of Western Carolina’s capable left side. “I’m really happy with how we defended that side of the court, but all of a sudden we had some hitters that hurt us on the other side.”
Overall, the reviews were good for how Elon contained the attack — sophomore outside hitter Kayla Agae remarked about how well Elon funneled and scattered the ball. But struggles in the passing game held the Phoenix back.
“We weren’t really in system all the time because they had a lot of aggressive serving,” Elon senior outside hitter Chanelle Smith said. “They had a really flat serve. … As the game went on, we were digging way out of system and we couldn’t run our pins a lot more.”
Playing with a depleted lineup — four players did not see the floor because of injuries — Elon came in energetic looking for a sharp start. It didn’t come immediately, as Western Carolina took a 7-3 lead in the first set to force an Elon timeout.
The Catamounts stayed on the gas and went up 14-9, which prompted another Elon timeout. From there, the Phoenix went on a 10-1 run, supplied late with blocks from freshman outside hitter Sydney Busa and junior middle blocker Catherine Head, to take a 18-15 lead.
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But Western Carolina rallied to take a 22-20 lead, to which Elon answered with four straight points — two on aces from Busa — to put it at set point. A kill from Vervelde, a block from Piechota and a pair of Elon errors swung the set in favor in of the Catamounts.
Western Carolina began the second set with back-to-back aces and never looked back, going up 9-1 to start.
Elon came out with fire in the third, going up 7-2 after three blocks from the likes of Busa, Smith, senior middle blocker Kris Harris and freshman middle blocker Michelle Klein. But Western Carolina slowly chipped away, using an 8-3 run to cut the deficit to 15-13 and force an Elon timeout.
“I wouldn’t say we got tired,” Smith said. Her twin sister, senior outside hitter Danielle Smith, and freshman setter Sydel Curry were not with the team at all because of injuries. Juniors Megan Gravley and Ana Nicksic were at the game but not in uniform.
“Personally, I wasn’t (tired),” Chanelle Smith said. “This whole week, we’ve been down, so we’re used to not having the full 13. It’s definitely wearing on us, but we had the intensity.”
The bright spot, once again, proved to be Agae, who had a stretch midway through the second set where she had five kills in eight points. She recorded her third straight double-double, leading all players with 13 kills while also recording 10 digs.
“Chanelle and Kayla got a lot of sets,” Tendler said. “They did a really good job — they had a double block up against them most of the time and took some good swings.”
Junior setter Chelsea Rafetto had 24 assists and 20 digs, while Smith had eight kills and 14 digs.
Elon is now 4-9 on the year, and will conclude the weekend with games on Saturday at 11 a.m. against Winthrop University and at 7 p.m. against Wake Forest.