For the Towson University volleyball team, the situation resembled a microcosm of its season.
And because of that, they were able to fall back on past experience to overcome adversity and rally for the first postseason victory in program history against Colgate in the first round of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship Nov. 30`.
Trailing the host Red Raiders 2-0, the coaches made some lineup changes, the players had a heart-to-heart among themselves and they rebounded stronger than ever. The end result was a 3-2, history-making victory.
"We went to the locker room and talked," senior first-team All-Colonial Athletic Association selection Julymar Otero said. "I said that if we want to win we have to stay together and come together right now. It's not just saying that we are going to do that, we have to do it. Something has to change or we are going to lose and go home."
While what happened in the locker room helped the players mentally, head coach Don Metil shuffled his lineup, moving Otero, who had been serving primarily as a rear setter, to outside hitter. Otero would finish the match with 10 kills (second on the team), 13 digs and six assists for her 13th double-double as the Tigers won the final three sets, 25-19, 25-21 and 15-11.
"She is a multifaceted player who played a lot of different positions for us and had a lot of success," Metil said of the Puerto Rico native. "She's been a great calming force for us on the court. She kind of steadies the ship."
The victory was Towson's 27th of the season, which tied the 2014 team for the most victories in Metil's five-year tenure and was the third-highest total in program history. And although the Tigers would fall to Syracuse of the Atlantic Coast Conference in the second round, 3-0, the match was competitive, and the draining comeback win against Colgate may have contributed.
"We lost by a combined eight points in all three sets, so we competed," Metil said. "We had to expend a lot of energy and mental effort to rebound against Colgate, so I'm not sure we put forth our best effort the next night, which was unfortunate but definitely a learning experience. Losing to Syracuse opened our eyes. They were bigger, and we were outmatched in the middle, not ability-wise, but in terms of height, approach touch and contact point."
Just as Towson went from the high of receiving its second postseason invitation in program history to the low of the 2-0 deficit against Colgate before rebounding in dramatic fashion, the Tigers' season opened with 16 consecutive victories before they dropped three straight conference matches. From that point on, Towson went 10-1 in conference play to finish 12-4 in the CAA and earn the conference tournament's second seed.
That turnaround was sparked by some soul-searching and lineup changes, similar to the rally against the Red Raiders.
"It was hard for us at first, having lost three straight matches when we hadn't had to deal with anything like that prior," sophomore setter Marissa Wonders said. "We knew we had to get out of our own heads and just play and we would figure it out. Those losses didn't define us. We knew we had a great team and that if we pushed ourselves we would continue winning."
While injuries forced Metil's hand a bit in terms of the lineup, the players believe that some other subtle adjustments he made contributed to the turnaround.
"After the first loss he pushed us hard to snap back," Wonders said of Metil. "But after the third one he eased up a little bit. I'm not sure why, but I think maybe he and the staff felt they were just pushing us too hard and it was better to back off and let us figure it out on our own and work our way back."
Otero agreed Metil's changes made a difference.
"The practice plan changed completely," she said. "We began focusing the first hour on individual stuff and then the last hour was more game-playing six-on-six. Working on the individual stuff allowed us to fix some things and get better, and then you take that and put it together with the team."
Towson rolled into the CAA Tournament, but ran up against a tough James Madison squad that Metil said was strong defensively, especially at blocking, an area that he hopes to sure up for Towson. The Tigers fell, 3-0, leaving their postseason hopes in jeopardy.
"We all knew we had a chance to get a bid to play [in the NIVC]," Wonders said of the tournament that had been resurrected after 22 years and consists of 32 teams not competing in the 64-team NCAA Championship. "But when JMU beat [top-seeded] Charleston in the finals, we thought we had lost our chance. When we found out that we got the bid we were incredibly excited."
The bid seemed well-deserved for a group Metil said may have been his most balanced ever. Three players earned all-conference honors, with Otero being named to the first team, junior Jocelyn Kuilan selected to the second team and redshirt junior Anna Holehouse making the third team.
Kuilan led the team in kills with 375 and added 165 digs. Junior Carola Biver had 311 kills, while recording 277 digs. Wonders had 758 assists, Holehouse recorded 595 digs and junior Olamide Sonuga paced the team with 105 blocks. Then there was Otero, who ranked among the nation's top five in triple doubles.
"We were able to run our offense through a lot more people this year than in the past," Metil said. "In the past we had to run things through one or two studs, but this year we were balanced throughout ,and I think some of the milestones we achieved can be attributed to that."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Towson Athletics