No. 3 Southern Vermont Upsets Top-seeded Eastern Nazarene 3-1 to Claim 2018 NECC Women’s Volleyball Championship

No. 3 Southern Vermont Upsets Top-seeded Eastern Nazarene 3-1 to Claim 2018 NECC Women’s Volleyball Championship

QUINCY, Mass. – Southern Vermont College is the 2018 New England Collegiate Conference (NECC) Women's Volleyball Champion as the visiting Mountaineers defeated top-seeded Eastern Nazarene College 3-1 Sunday afternoon at Lahue Physical Education Center.

SVC won the opening set 25-21 before edging the Lions 25-23 to put the hosts on their heels. ENC responded and won the third by a 25-14 margin, and the Lions then came back from being down by nine late in the fourth to go on top 23-22.

The two sides battled back-and-forth the rest of the way until a Mountaineer kill and final Eastern Nazarene attacking error made way for SVC to celebrate the program's fourth NECC title.

Southern Vermont senior captain Liv Sowles (Sacramento, Calif.) was named the postseason's Most Valuable Player while senior libero Heidy Benitez (Tulare, Calif.) and junior Sarah Baty (Portola, Calif.) were honored on the All-Tournament Team.

SVC improves to 21-6 on the year after its tremendous run through the league playoffs; the third-seeded Mountaineers took down both No. 2 Elms College and top-sitting ENC away from their home gym over the weekend.

The NCAA will unveil the pairings for its Division III Regional Tournament at 12:30 p.m. on Monday—announcing who and where SVC will play in Friday's opening round.

"Watermelons; pineapples; I don't know.…. I honestly can't think of words right now," said Mountaineer second-year head coach Pat Robidoux after enjoying warm embraces of players, family, and friends. "The players just worked so hard and faced so much adversity. We had our ups and downs; we had a rollercoaster ride of a season. Obviously, personal stuff impacted that and got in the way. At the end of the day, however, these ladies came here for one reason; they came here to put everything they have towards the collective. They played a phenomenal game of volleyball today.

"Eastern Nazarene put up the biggest fight I think any team could have put up," Robidoux continued, "but we just focused on one point at-a-time and finished the job. It's an amazing feeling. This is exactly what Liv, Heidy, and I talked about when we first started here together. It's amazing to see—two years later—it finally come true and finish the way we talked about."

Sowles registered a match-high 28 kills on Sunday while committing only five hitting errors on 71 swings for a .324 hitting percentage; that was good enough to tie for the seventh-most in DIII this year during a four-set match.

"Can you ask for a better championship performance than 28 kills on 71 attempts?" Robidoux pondered. "She is an absolute animal. She's had matches this year where she's hit in the negative; however, she's the Player of the Year and the best player this conference has. We knew that we were going to get her the ball today and that she was going to do her job. It's an amazing accomplishment—as a coach—when a player can mean so much to you and a player can teach you so much about yourself. I think it's going to be difficult moving on without her next year. Everything she's given us has built towards this moment… this is very much her moment, and I can't say enough about how proud I am of her.

Benitez racked up 38 digs on the defensive end for a career-high during a four-set match. That helped her become just the eighth member of SVC Volleyball's 1,000 Club—honoring the men's and women's student-athletes who amassed quadruple digits in kills, assists, aces, or digs during their tenure at Southern Vermont. Benitez now has 1,030 digs in her career—being the only women's player in school history to join the club for that category.

"She works so hard," Robidoux said of his senior libero. "She's so hard headed, so stubborn, and just has this fire; but there's really nothing that I think anybody can do or say that would waiver that fire in her. She's the most determined player I have ever seen in my entire life. We couldn't have gotten any luckier than to bring her in last year. I didn't think she'd be able to top her performance against Elms with 40 digs [in five sets], but then she tops it today with 38 [in four]; it was just a phenomenal, phenomenal match—and season—from her. She deserves to have her name up on that banner."

Baty recorded 44 assists and 12 digs against the Lions while sophomore Nikki Ramirez (West Covina, Calif.) had 11 kills and a pair of digs. Junior Taryn Higareda (Rosemead, Calif.) notched 11 digs, seven kills, and two aces while junior Dahlia Rafael-Tirado (Providence, R.I.) posted 16 digs and four assists.

"In our gym, we don't talk about the X's and O's as much as we talk about grit, tenacity, and discipline," Robidoux said. "We talk more about principles, and these players really buy into it. We give them freedom to play with the style that they want to play with. We tweak things here and there, but we really focus more on the behaviors that lead to championships; I think these players exemplify those behaviors which resulted in an NECC championship this year.

"It's not just the will to win, it's the need to win," the Mountaineer coach continued. "I think the person who best represents that is Nikki Ramirez; she's someone who struggled this year and had a tough season. We moved her position around a couple times, she got frustrated about it, but then she just said, 'Hey, I'm going to be grateful about the opportunity I have to be out there, and I'm going to try and affect everybody with positivity. I'm going to try and do my job to the best of my ability.' And that's what she did today; she was a huge impact player for us in the biggest moment of our season. Nikki really embodies everything that we talk about; she's the player I want to put on a pedestal today."

How it Happened
Eastern Nazarene took control off the opening serve and went in front 8-3, but the Mountaineers used a timeout to damper the Lions' momentum and played to a 5-2 spurt after the action resumed. Southern Vermont went on a 6-1 run with kills from Ramirez, Sowles, and junior Meg Maddalena (Portola, Calif.) to pull ahead, but ENC was able to find an answer to stay close. Up 21-20, however, SVC closed out the game on a 4-1 run behind three Sowles kills and another from junior Abby Landon (South Glens Falls, N.Y.).

Southern Vermont started the second frame in a groove and went on top 13-7 midway through the stanza. Eastern Nazarene came back, though, and tied it at 15-15 to set up a tight ending. Points were traded the rest of the way until the score was eventually knotted at 22-22. Higareda put down a kill to help make it set point, and she came back with one more after an ENC point to put her team comfortably ahead 2-0 in the match.

With the third game tied 9-9, the Lions took to a 7-2 run and never relinquished the lead. A Landon kill made it a 17-14 Eastern Nazarene edge, but the hosts then rattled off eight-straight points to extend their season.

SVC started to pull away in the fourth as five unanswered points put the Mountaineers on top 10-5; Ramirez had back-to-back kills in that stretch while Landon downed an ace. Consecutive Baty aces later made it 19-10, but the Lions refused to get run out of their gym. ENC took three of the next four before winning nine in-a-row to pull ahead at 23-22. Robidoux wouldn't say, however, that he or his team was ever nervous while Eastern Nazarene was making its comeback.

"I don't think 'nerves' is necessarily the word," he commented. "I think we did a really great job at staying present and focusing on the point that we were in. The run that they had—it wasn't really a lack of focus on our part; it was just phenomenal volleyball on their part. They really earned every point; they targeted us really well and got locked in for 12-straight points. But we were able to set our sights on the end goal and kept our focus going; we didn't get rattled by it and hung in there till the very end."

Southern Vermont would take the next two points with Higareda putting down an ace to make it match point. Ramirez and Sowles each sandwiched ENC points to put their team on the brink of victory, but the Lions were able to respond each time. Sowles dropped in one more kill, however, before an Eastern Nazarene scramble play couldn't result in an attack over the net for SVC to raise the trophy.

Landon finished with five digs, four kills, and two aces while Maddalena totaled four kills and four digs in the win.