By Adam Greene
Greeneville Sun Correspondent
Tusculum College volleyball enters Friday's South Atlantic Conference tournament with the wind at its back. The No. 2-seeded Pioneers have won six straight games heading into the postseason and swept their last three opponents 3-0.
"I like where we're at," Tusculum coach Michael Robinson said. "Everybody we could face in the tournament, we've beaten already this season. That gives us a lot of confidence. This group is so experienced and been in so many huge situations that I think this year could be special."
The Pioneers (20-6, 14-4 SAC) open the tournament Friday against No. 7 seed Mars Hill (14-14, 7-11) at 5 p.m. This is the second time in the last three seasons Tusculum has been the No. 2 seed in the tournament.
The Pioneers swept the regular season match ups with the Lions without dropping a single game. Still, Tusculum isn't looking past Mars Hill.
"They're not team we can take lightly," Robinson said. "They've got a lot of offensive firepower and they're a very good defensive team. Anybody can beat anybody on any given night. We have to be focused on taking care of us and what we do first."
The Pioneers come into the tournament with momentum and the best player in the conference. Junior libero Caitlyn Dean picked up more SAC player of the week awards than she can carry this season. Dean leads the nation in digs with 735. Her career total of 2,224 is a new school record and the third highest in SAC history. Dean's 7.81 digs per set is best in every NCAA level and her career average of 7.08 digs per set is the best in NCAA Division II history.
Dean likes to downplay her accomplishments, but her teammates know exactly what she means to them.
"When I'm on the back row with her (Dean), I know she's going to get everything up," sophomore outside hitter Megan Hasse said. "It's amazing. We look at all of her awards and we're not surprised. She's that good. We expect it. I've never played with a libero this good."
Dean isn't focused on what she's done this year. She's focused on what lies ahead. If Tusculum wins their next two games, they expect a rematch with No. 1 seed Wingate (26-2, 16-2) in the final. The Pioneers snapped Wingate's 83-match South Atlantic Conference win streak with a 3-1 victory on Sep. 15. The Lady Bulldogs got some payback with a 3-1 victory over Tusculum on Oct. 20.
"I've been here three years and I've lost to them (Wingate) nine times," Dean said. "Beating them was a huge accomplishment for us. Everyone's coming into the tournament 0-0 so anything can happen."
Dean isn't doing it alone. Hass leads a trio of front-line hitters with 200-plus kills. Hasse has 268, Kassie Voelker has 227 and Alyssa Raterman has 205. Voelker and Raterman are just as deadly on defense, with Voelker totaling 68 blocks and Raterman 59.
In the middle, recently crowned SAC Scholar Athlete of the Year Ashley Sarmiento has 908 assists on the season as setter.
"I couldn't do anything without my teammates," Dean said. "I work hard for them so we can achieve the goals we all have. It's not over yet. We still have a lot to accomplish."