By Mike Rudin and Nick Mazzarella - Sports Editor and Staff Writer
The Pride volleyball squad blazed through the competition and won the UConn tournament title this past weekend. Hofstra brought the brooms against Bryant University and Columbia University, sweeping both teams three sets to none.
The latest three-match winning streak propels their record up to 12-2 on the year. This is the second-best start in team history, since the 1988 squad started out 13-1.
The Pride won eight consecutive sets against all three teams until UConn broke the streak to stay alive in the tournament finale. In the fourth set the Pride buckled down and pulled away with a victory, as well as the title.
“It’s definitely a good feeling to have. It’s good to see student-athletes working hard and [it’s] paying off on the court when we win a match like this, at their home, at UConn. UConn had a great team; they played well but we stepped up, and that’s good,” said head coach Emily Mansur.
Senior Kelsie Wills was awarded MVP in the tournament for her dominating performance and she was selected to the all-tournament team.
In the third match, both teams competed fiercely from the very start, but the Pride were able to run away with the first set, outscoring UConn in the last 13 points 9-4.
By the second set, Hofstra and UConn matched point-for-point throughout most of the set. The Pride started to slip a bit, executing five errors in the second set compared to surrendering one in the first. Tensions grew as Hofstra was up by four points one moment, then nearly losing the set 24-25 the next moment. Fortunately, the Pride came back to score the necessary three points to take the second set.
The errors continued into the third set, committing six, the highest number of errors in the match. Hofstra trailed behind throughout the majority of the third set due to errors, a loss in rhythm and spotty execution. They trailed nine points at one moment, thus sealing their fate to lose the third set despite rallying back within five points in the end.
By the fourth set, the Pride were determined to finish the match and did so with flying colors. The team limited their errors to three, and flipped the point difference from losing 20-25 in the third set to winning 25-20 in the fourth set.
Wills was on fire, establishing a season-high 26 kills as well as seven digs, on the night. Senior Emily Burke came up clutch, acting as second-in-command on the attack and scoring 14 kills in the match.
With her stellar performance, Burke gave her insight, “Just being consistent, and never blaming anyone on our side. It’s always about scoring and sometimes we get down on ourselves and personally I would get down on myself, so just working against and keeping a straight mindset [helped with scoring].”
Even head coach Mansur noticed Burke’s performance in the finale, “Emily has stepped up for us tremendously this season and she was a very important part for our success in this match.”
Sophomore Sophia Black held down the fort on the defensive side, providing 29 digs on the night, a season-high for her, and nearly accomplishing the 30-dig plus performance in a match.
Senior Nuria Lopes da Silva provided aid on both fronts, establishing ten kills, three digs and five block assists as well as one solo block.
Burke led the team with six block assists in the finale. Commenting on the team’s performance, Burke said, “Our block was set up pretty well once we adjusted and the defense made their job really easy to get behind us so it worked out really well.”
The morning match against Columbia played out a little differently. The Pride won the first set without giving up the lead or tying at any point and they managed to be up by at least four points after the first 10 plays.
The second set was a toe-to-toe competition comprising of ten moments where the scores tied and containing five lead changes. After the teams tied 23-23, the Pride stepped up and finished the set, scoring the necessary last two points to win the second set.
The third set turned out as a combination of the first two. For about a majority of the set the teams tied, but by the last 17-17 standing the Pride stormed away scoring the last eight of 11 points for the match win.
The three seniors Wills, Burke and da Silva led the offensive front. Wills provided the offensive foundation with 13 kills, Burke greatly supported the foundation with 11 kills and da Silva tacked on extra support with 7.
Black laid down the defensive foundation with 13 digs in the match. Wills aided the defensive side, putting up nine digs of her own. Junior Kaitlyn Krause added support with seven digs during the match. Burke managed to record the only solo block in the match for her team.
On Friday, the Pride swept Bryant in their first match at the Husky Invitational. In the first set, Hofstra led 18-15 before Bryant went on a 4-0 run, causing Hofstra to call timeout. But the Pride responded with a run of their own, scoring the last five points of the set after a 20-20 tie. Hofstra’s solid blocking held Bryant to a -.143 hitting percentage in the opening set.
“Our blockers are really learning to read the game and be patient,” said Mansur. “They understand that they don’t have to guess, they can see it and react to it.”
The second set was all Hofstra, who gained momentum after a strong finish in the first set. The Pride led by as many as 16 points during the set and held the Bulldogs to 9 points. Hofstra recorded a .500 hitting percentage and made just one attack error in the set.
In the final set, Bryant saw an 11-5 lead turn into a 22-16 deficit. Sophomore outside hitter Veronika Kostova ended the match with a kill, giving Hofstra its 10th win of the season.
Overall, Hofstra improved to 10-2, while Bryant fell to 3-12. Senior middle blockers da Silva (match-high, 11 kills) and Adama Aja (.714 hitting percentage) played key roles in the sweep.
“If we get our middles involved in the game, it completely changes everything else,” said Mansur. “They are huge for us.”
Five players had at least six kills for the Pride. In a match that Wills didn’t put away balls as often as she usually does as an outside hitter, that balanced attack was important. “It takes pressure off Kelsie,” said Mansur.
Mansur felt her team coming into its own last weekend at a good time, “They really started to play a higher level of volleyball than they knew they could,” she said.
The Pride will start conference matches on the road this Friday against Elon University at 7:00 p.m., and against University of North Carolina-Wilmington this Sunday at 1:00 p.m.