BY DARREN REESE
One of the strengths of the Tusculum volleyball team this season is the abundance of experience on the roster. Head coach Michael Robinson needed every bit of it Tuesday night.
Tusculum fell one set behind rival Carson-Newman on two different occasions before ultimately rallying to force a fifth-and-deciding frame. The Lady Pioneers then trailed 9-6 in that set, but managed to storm back to capture a South Atlantic Conference victory at Pioneer Arena.
The final match scores were 19-25, 25-16, 27-29, 25-21 and 15-11.
"If we would have been in this same match last year, we probably would have come out on the opposite end," Robinson said. "Our upperclassmen, the ones that have been here three or four years, they were vital in our success tonight."
"I couldn't be more proud of the leadership those girls provided tonight (when we faced adversity)."
Tusculum was coming off the biggest win in program history, a 3-1 decision over No. 16 Wingate Saturday that snapped the Lady Bulldogs' 83-match conference winning streak. It also marked the first-ever victory for the Lady Pioneers over a nationally ranked opponent.
Add that to the fact that Tusculum was playing at home for the first time this season Tuesday night, and it could have been a recipe for disaster. But playing a rival like Carson-Newman was of benefit to the Lady Pioneers, Robinson said.
"We couldn't have asked for a better opponent," the coach said. "Coming off a big win, and our first home match, I'm sure the girls had a few jitters. But the rivalry alone gets our girls fired up. They were ready to play tonight."
Tusculum (8-2 overall) has now won seven straight matches and sits atop the SAC standings with a perfect 3-0 mark in league play.
The Lady Pioneers are heavy on upperclassmen this season, with four seniors and three juniors on the roster. The four members of the senior class - Sam Underwood, Melanie Gibson, Alyssa Raterman and Bailee Price - have all been starters since they were freshmen.
"Our upperclassmen have tried to push the emotion but stay steady at the same time," Underwood said. "We have always been a real emotional team, but now that we have more age, more maturity, more experience, we can use that energy to our benefit."
"I think that's what happened at times tonight. We had a couple of wake-up calls and finally got it together there at the end and really were able to pick up some momentum."
Underwood followed back-to-back kills by junior Kassie Voelker with two of her own to rally the Lady Pioneers in the fifth set.
Tusculum not only seized the momentum, but got the sizable crowd into a frenzy as well, and Carson-Newman fell apart after that.
The Lady Pioneers scored their final two points of the night off C-N errors.
"Carson-Newman played amazing all night so you have to give them a lot of credit," Underwood said. "I don't know if we noticed the crowd as much, but we really started to play with a lot of momentum toward the end."
The two teams alternated the first four sets, with Carson-Newman winning the first and the third.
The Lady Eagles used a 7-0 run in the first set and rolled to an easy victory. Tusculum answered the call in the second, closing with a 12-3 stretch to pull away.
The third set was the most exciting of the night as their were 11 lead changes and 20 ties before Carson-Newman captured a 29-27 victory.
Tusculum jumped out to a 15-8 lead in the fourth, but the Lady Eagles rallied to tie it at 18-18. It was all Lady Pioneers after that, though.
Megan Hasse recorded 14 kills, 13 digs and three blocks to pace the Tusculum attack, while Danae Stauffer added 14 kills. Hannah Berling contributed 19 assists and 11 digs.
Carson Newman was led by Rachel Harper's 14 kills.