This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the volleyball team.
After losing five vital players from a squad that finished runner-up in the 2003 Atlantic Ten Championship, the Owls were expected to toil at the bottom of the conference.
Well, so much for assumptions.
The Owls (14-16, 11-3) secured another A-10 tournament berth last week, finishing the season third in the conference. They will meet No. 2 seed Xavier (18-9, 12-2) tonight in the A.J. Palumbo Center at Duquesne University.
If the Owls beat Xavier, they will face the winner of top seed Dayton and No. 4 Duquesne for the A-10 title on Saturday.
It would also give the Owls an opportunity to avenge last year’s defeat to Dayton. In the 2003 A-10 title game, the Flyers swept the top-seeded Owls at McGoningle Hall.
Whatever playoff inexperience the players may have is made up for by coach Bob Bertucci, who has now coached Temple to its ninth consecutive A-10 championship appearance. The Owls have won four conference championships during Bertucci’s tenure, with the last coming in 2002.
Bertucci said that as the No. 3 seed, his team will not experience the same amount of pressure as last year’s squad.
“No one expected us to be a part of the top four teams,” Bertucci said. “The only pressure on us is the pressure that we put on ourselves.”
Temple faces a daunting challenge in overcoming Xavier, the only conference team to defeat the Owls twice this season. The Musketeers led the conference in nearly every offensive category, including hitting percentage, and have lost only one match since Oct. 1.
Xavier won both regular season meetings because the Owls defense couldn’t stop their second option, according to Bertucci.
“The first time we played them, we committed our middle-blockers against their middle and they kept setting the ball to the outside, and they beat us outside,” Bertucci said. “The next time, we had our middles go outside and they beat us in the middle.”
Senior Laura Leis said the team needs to be more focused to defeat Xavier and have a shot at the A-10 title.
“Everyone has to be on the same level. We all have to want to accomplish this,” Leis said.
The Owls began the season struggling through their non-conference schedule. They were 3-13 against opponents outside the A-10.
The tough early schedule matched the Owls against some of the stronger squads in the country, which prepared them for their solid play in the conference.
“We ironed [out] our communication and our differences,” senior Alison Runk said of the lessons the team learned during non-conference matches. “We knew how important A-10 games were. We worked harder and we played better.”
The Owls have benefited from the contributions of freshmen Yue Liu, Ying Sun Ling and Christina DeMarco. Liu – a candidate for A-10 Rookie of the Year – is second on the team with 356 kills, while Ying Sun Ling ranks third with 226. DeMarco has the second-highest hitting percentage among freshmen in the A-10.
The question remains whether these standout freshmen will be ready for the high stakes and intensity of the playoffs.
“Even though they’re freshmen, the other players have conveyed to them the importance of [the playoffs],” Bertucci said. “We didn’t do real well against non-conference [teams] and early on we really put a lot of our focus and energy into conference play, and we did very well there.
“This is an opportunity for them to turn their season around. Instead of having a quote, ‘rebuilding year,’ they could end up having a championship year.”
Tyson McCloud can be reached at email@example.com.