BY ADAM GREENE
GREENEVILLE - It's been four days since their season ended in Savannah, Ga. and the Tusculum College women's volleyball team can now look back at the tournament, and their 2012 season, and put it into perspective.
The NCAA Division II Sweet 16 appearance capped an unprecedented four-year run for the Pioneers (24-8), in which the women won their first-ever NCAA tournament game, and knocked out Southeast Region No. 1 seed Armstrong last Friday.
"I've never played with a team that loved each other this much and had so much heart before," junior setter Ashley Sarmiento said. "We really are a family. It's exciting to have so many firsts for our program. We were a part of history this year."
Sarmiento was named to the All-Region tournament team, along with sophomore outside hitter Megan Hasse and junior libero Caitlyn Dean.
"Ashley is never rattled," Tusculum coach Michael Robinson said. "She did a tremendous job leading the team and Megan, every time we needed a ball put away, she was there for us. She had some clutch kills. It was fitting that she had the last kill of the match against Armstrong.
All Dean did was lead the entire country in digs, averaging 7.80 per set. Dean is on pace to set a new NCAA D-II record next season. Dean, Hasse and Sarmiento will all be back with the Pioneers in 2013.
"We return a lot of real, key players," Robinson said. "But when you talk about replacing leadership like we're losing now, that's the scary part. We're looking forward to next year and building on the success, but these seniors will be hard to replace. There's some good things in store for us."
A vocal part of that nucleus of four seniors is outside hitter Bailee Price. Price was part of the first Robinson team to make the NCAA tournament, and part of the past disappointments. To finish out her final season, and final volleyball games, in a real tournament run was bittersweet.
"I was trying to fight back tears," Price said. "It's been an amazing four years for me and my team. I didn't want it to end. It did and you have to accept it. We're so close as a team, it just made it that much harder for us to let go."
Price and the rest of the Pioneers came into the tournament as the fourth seed. Price feels they may have been overlooked, especially when they faced off against Armstrong. In the second game of the season Armstrong defeated Tusculum 3-1.
"I think they definitely underestimated us a little bit," Price said. "We were the fourth seed and they'd played us before and beat us. We came in fired up. We did not stop. Kassie Voelker (seven kills, nine blocks) just went off. I think that's the best we played all year. For us to all play together, stay strong and show that kind of determination to win made it really special."
Price was upbeat Monday night, accepting an award at halftime of the Tusculum men's basketball game. The soreness in her body had already subsided from the weekend tournament, and while it was still there, the soreness in her heart had lessened too.
"There's so much good to look at," Price said. "You don't want to dwell on the bad. You don't want to lose, but the overall experience was so awesome. It took us a while in the locker room to see it because we were all so upset. We left it all on the court and that's all you can do."