There are more games left this season, but the only one that mattered to Temple’s volleyball team came and went last Saturday. Riding a 14-game winning streak the Owls went into the Final expecting nothing but a second straight title. Instead they were soundly beaten 3-0, to Dayton in the Atlantic Ten Championship.
By winning the A-10 title, Dayton earned an automatic NCAA Tournament bid, while Temple, last year’s A-10 champs, could not assure itself a shot at replicating last season’s NCAA Sweet 16 success.
For the Owls (20-8), it was too long and successful a season to end so abruptly.
“I’m kind of in denial,” said senior Charity Hill, who finished with 10 kills and a match-high 14 digs. “It’s weird. It doesn’t even feel like we’ve played yet.”
Hill is only one of a number of returning Temple seniors who played pivotal roles in last year’s tournament run. Outside hitters Yamit Haba, Margaret Majewska, and All-Championship selection Xu Yun shared Hill’s disappointment in possibly playing the last significant game of their Temple careers.
For junior setter Allison Runk, a second consecutive Atlantic 10 Setter of the Year Award was little consolation to losing the outside-hitting targets whihc have brought her and the Owls so much success.
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” said Runk, whose 12.73 assists per game led the conference. “These are the girls I’ve played with since freshman year.”
The normally talkative Owls were shaken by the demoralizing loss. They were guardedly optimistic concerning the possibility of an at-large selection into the NCAA Tournament, which remains indefinite despite Temple’s strong showing in 2002.
“I think the NCAAs would be a long shot, because our preseason record wasn’t that good,” Runk said. “I know we still have our Thanksgiving tournament, so we can hopefully end the season with a win. But it won’t be the same.”
Temple opened the season with five straight losses before a successful return to McGonigle Hall in September put them back on track.
Coach Bob Bertucci, who directed the Owls to a 3-2 win over Dayton at McGonigle late in the regular season, felt that Temple’s late-season surge might have had a detrimental effect on his usually unshakeable players’ psyches.
“Sometimes when you get on a streak and win 15 or 16 matches in a row, you start to hear people saying, ‘hey, you’re gonna win,’ all the time,” Bertucci said. “Those expectations put a lot of pressure on your shoulders.
“When you play at home, obviously there’s advantages, but you can feel that everyone is there for you, and I don’t think we handled that really well tonight.”
A somewhat tense Temple team was not helped when Runk suffered a scraped right forearm, which was bandaged quickly during a timeout so she could return in the first game. Although Temple continued to trade points with Dayton for a while, missed serves and errors eventually did the Owls in for a 30-23 first-game loss.
In the second game, the score was tied 29-29, as the two teams changed leads three more times before Dayton prevailed, 33-31. Temple then played Dayton even at 27-27 in the third game before the Flyers finally pulled away to win the game, 30-27, and the match.
Temple tried to show smiles, especially when Yun and Runk were announced to the All-Championship team. In the end, they could only whisper words of encouragement to each other on their dejected bench. Hill hung her head, struggling for the words to describe the numbness left by a season ended prematurely.
“There’s still a slim chance we could get into the Tournament,” Hill said, sounding more pleading than confident. “Maybe my volleyball career won’t have to end today.”