By Nick Mazzarella and Kevin Carroll - STAFF WRITERS
No. 2 seed Hofstra captured the CAA championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament with a five-set win over No. 1 seed and tournament host College of Charleston on Sunday. Set scores were 26-24, 27-25, 19-25, 24-26, 15-8.
The CAA title is the program’s third ever, the other two titles won in 2006 and 2012, and the first under first-year head coach Emily Mansur.
“This is like a perfect Cinderella story,” said Mansur. “I started my first year with such a great group, and I’m very thankful that they responded so well to the changes that we brought this year.”
Senior outside hitter Kelsie Wills, senior middle blocker Nuria Lopes da Silva and senior right side hitter, Emily Burke, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, were named to the all-tournament team.
“It was a privilege to have all of them,” said Mansur about her seniors.
Heading into Sunday’s match, the season series between Hofstra and College of Charleston was tied at one. Each team’s win came in five sets on the other’s home court.
In the first set, three straight service errors and two block errors by Hofstra gave the College of Charleston five of its first six points. The Cougars held the largest lead at 16-11, but an 8-3 run by the Pride tied the score at 19. After that point, there were five lead changes, but a service ace by Lopes da Silva gave Hofstra a 26-24 win.
Hofstra’s slow start in set number two caused Mansur to use both of her timeouts over a five-point span (down 6-2 and 10-3), but the Pride fought back. Thanks to a 15-5 run, they led 18-15. Despite tying the score at 24 and then 25, the College of Charleston never regained the lead. A kill and a block assist by Lopes da Silva closed the set and had Hofstra one set away from a CAA championship.
However, the Cougars didn’t let Hofstra off that easily. In the third set, six unanswered points from the College of Charleston quickly turned an 11-11 tie into a 17-11 advantage. The Pride cut the lead to three after that point, but in a set in which Hofstra’s hitting percentage was just .133, the Cougars’ .333 clip was too much to overcome. College of Charleston took set number three, 25-19.
In a fourth set that featured 11 ties and seven lead changes, Mansur received a red card for calling a timeout that Hofstra did not have. The red card gave College of Charleston a point, which tied the score at 24. The Cougars took the next two points forcing the conference’s top two teams to need a fifth set for the third time this year.
Before the final set, Mansur told her team, “We are where we want to be. Let’s give everything we have and not regret anything at the end of this match.”
There aren’t any regrets. Hofstra trailed for only one point in set number five at 2-1, but a 7-1 run gave the Pride a commanding 8-3 lead when the teams switched sides. After the College of Charleston rattled off three straight points to get within two, Hofstra scored seven of the next nine points to win the set, the match and the CAA championship. A kill by the MOP, Burke, on championship point was followed by Pride players falling to the ground in excitement and piling on top of one another.
“I was just very excited.” Mansur said after the final point. “I was like, ‘Thank God,’ especially after the red card in the fourth game. I was just thankful we won.”
Wills, the CAA Player of the Year, tied her season high with 26 kills and also added 10 digs. Burke had 18 kills and a team-high .400 hitting percentage, while Lopes da Silva with 17 kills, also reached double figures and led the team with seven total blocks.
Sophomore Hannah Klemm, CAA Setter of the Year, had a career-high 63 assists. In a match in which the back row stood tall, junior libero Corrina Delgadillo led the defensive effort with 21 digs. Junior defensive specialist Kaitlyn Krause, tied her season high with 15 digs, while sophomore defensive specialist Sophia Black had 13 of her own.
For the Cougars, Melissa Morello, who was All-CAA third team, had a team-best 16 kills, and Andi Zbojniewicz, named CAA Defensive Specialist of the Year and on All-CAA second team, had a match-high 26 digs.
To advance to the championship, Hofstra swept No. 6 seed James Madison in the semifinals on Saturday after earning a bye in the quarterfinals.
With top-seeded College of Charleston waiting in the wings, that beat UNCW in the day’s first semifinal, the Pride took it right to the Dukes from the first serve. James Madison previously ended the Pride’s ten-match winning streak back in October, and was looking to dash the Pride’s championship aspirations.
Hofstra raced out of the gate, and grabbed the first set by a score of 25-18. The action was more back-and-forth than the score would suggest, as James Madison hung tough with the Pride for most of the set. At one point, the Dukes were within one point of the Pride, but a streak of seven consecutive points put Hofstra firmly in the driver’s seat, and they were able to cruise to victory, grabbing a crucial advantage in the match.
The second set was even closer than the first, as extra time was needed to determine a winner. After all was said and done, Hofstra was able to edge a little bit closer to claiming the match, winning the second set 28-26.
Fans in attendance at the College of Charleston were treated to some fantastic volleyball from both sides. James Madison controlled the action early, but the Pride was able to scratch and claw their way back, rattling off five points in a row to pull ahead of the Dukes halfway through the set.
The teams traded blows, neither able to gain a significant advantage. There were 12 ties in the second set. Hofstra was able to finally put the Dukes away with a costly James Madison attack error as the deciding factor as Hofstra took a two sets to no advantage in the match.
The third and final set mirrored the previous set in score, 28-26, but the way this final score was achieved was much different. Hofstra controlled the set from the start, keeping the Dukes at arm’s length for the duration of the set.
With their backs against the wall, the Dukes managed to launch a last-ditch effort to stay alive. Hofstra served for the match, at 24-21, and James Madison scored the next three points, knotting things up at 24. The Dukes had a chance to serve for the set, but Hofstra turned on the afterburners one more time, and a kill by Burke put the Dukes down for good.
The usual suspects powered the Pride to victory, with All-CAA first team selections Lopes da Silva and Wills pacing the Pride with 17 and 13 kills, respectively. All-CAA third team member, Burke, added 11 kills of her own. The Pride defense was on display, with Delgadillo posting 15 digs, and Krause and Black chipping in ten digs each. Klemm, an All-CAA second team selection, tallied 45 assists for the Pride.
“Our offense tonight was very balanced, said Mansur. “Nuria had a great match for us, she was very effective.”
She also had high praise for Burke. “Emily was another phenomenal player who really dominated the right side,” she said. “They couldn’t stop her.”
For the Dukes, who finished their season at 17-14, Lizzy Briones led her team with 12 kills, and Taylor Austin posted a match-high 21 digs.
Hofstra’s NCAA tournament appearance will mark the eighth in program history. The Pride will have to take No. 14 Nebraska on their homecourt on Friday, Dec. 5 at 8:00 p.m. If the Pride are to pull the upset, they would face the winner of Kansas State vs. Utah.