The Elon University volleyball team was unable to win its conference home opener against the University of North Carolina Wilmington as they fell 3-0 on Sept. 23. After dropping both matches to Hofstra University last weekend, today’s loss placed Elon in a three-way tie for a race to the bottom of the Coastal Athletic Association standings.
Elon head coach Mary Tendler said while it was good to be playing in the Schar Center again, she felt like her team lacked energy from the outset of the match. While it was a sluggish start, Tendler said she thought the Elon defense eventually settled in and was able to play well.
“We blocked quite a few balls, and you know, we were picking up tips and rolls and digging quite a bit,” Tendler said.
While the Phoenix defense was impressive at certain points of the match, highlighted by senior libero Jordan Gower tying a season-high 22 digs, it was simply not enough to disrupt the Seahawks’ recent winning surge. UNCW’s victory today marks three wins in a row and puts them atop the CAA.
Coming into today, the Phoenix were undefeated at Schar Center on the year. A potent Seahawk offense led by junior middle hitter Grace Melnick did away with that unbeaten record. Melnick racked up 12 kills while hitting .706 en route to their sweep. She was also just one kill short from tying her career high.
While the Phoenix were always within striking distance during the match, they had difficulty making up lost ground and holding onto a lead. After tying the first set at one point apiece, Elon never tied or took the lead again in the opening stanza. UNCW’s lead swelled to as many as nine, and ultimately the Phoenix fell 25-19.
The second set consisted of far more back-and-forth action. Neither team could find breathing room early on, as the two teams found themselves tied 15 times with six lead changes. Elon’s largest lead of the second match came at 15-12, however, the Seahawks quickly battled back with four straight points.
The final tie of the second period came at 18-18, a kill by UNCW senior outside hitter Emily Hanlon ultimately put the Seahawks ahead for good. Elon graduate student libero Abigail Sparkman committed a service error and gave up the set to UNCW, 25-22, meaning the Phoenix now only had one more set to get back into the game.
Despite being down 2-0, Elon seemingly still had plenty of energy and intensity. The two teams traded points early on. However, after an 8-8 tie, the Seahawks never looked back. While the Phoenix were able to get it to within one, UNCW ultimately prevailed 25-20 in the third set, allowing them to complete the sweep.
Because conference play just started earlier this week, Tendler said there is reason to still have hope. She said the team has been process-focused and is now seeing what it takes to win during in-game moments.
“We're more focused on the process, and we’re getting better at, but we're learning and seeing in matches what it takes to win a match,” Tendler said.
Tendler said the Phoenix making in-practice improvements could be a make-or-break difference when it comes to the outcome of the game. She said there are a few areas that have been difficult for Elon lately.
“Some of the serve, receive, just identifying where the serve is going early, getting a loud call out, and being able to get the platform out early and have a nice finish to the target, that isn't happening all the time,” Tendler said.
While Tendler said there are plenty of areas of growth for the Phoenix, there were still a couple of bright spots for Elon during the match Sept. 23.
The reigning CAA rookie of the week freshman middle blocker Cameron Lanier totaled eight kills during the match. While the Phoenix dropped both matches to Hofstra last weekend, Lanier recorded her first career double-double with 13 kills, 14 digs and four blocks. She even notched a .273 hitting percentage.
“She's so versatile,” Tendler said. “She can do everything on the court. She can block it; you also saw her dig a lot of balls today and run down balls and she has a wicked serve. For her, it's just, can she keep her errors down? But I like that she's so aggressive.”
The Phoenix defense was anchored by Gower today, who surpassed a significant career milestone too. As she notched 22 digs for the third time this season Sept. 23, Gower also passed 1,500 career digs and is now just one of five players in program history to ever reach the mark.
“We can depend on Jordan, to receive, serve, and to dig a large part of the court,” Tendler said. “She knows where to shift to, or what defense to be in, you know, she’s talking to her teammates. That’s huge.”
In her fifth year, Gower has already racked up 163 digs on the season. Gower said there are plenty of intangibles that have shaped her into the impressive defender she has become.
“I really just try to go for everything,” Gower said. “Effort is a really big thing for me. So, I'm just getting all out on every single ball and then also just communicating and trying to be a leader of the back row.”
While Elon’s defense might have been the bright spot of the game for them Sept. 23, the UNCW defense was equally — if not more — impressive. They held the Phoenix to a .107 hitting average all while three separate Seahawk players recorded double-digit digs.
Gower said she thinks they should be in a good position to win the Sept. 25 match against UNCW if Elon can straighten out those simple unforced errors before their rematch with the Seahawks.
“We struggled a little bit in the serve and pass game, especially in the first set,” Gower said. “I think some of the errors were just on our side, honestly. So, if we clean up our unforced errors, it'll really set us up for success.”
The Phoenix will have another opportunity to get their first conference win as they look to a 2 p.m. matchup Sept. 24 with UNCW at Schar Center.