The St. Thomas volleyball team lost to Eastern University of St. Davids, Pa. 3-0 Friday in the NCAA Elite Eight. It is the second year in a row the team lost in the NCAA quarterfinals.
The Tommies ended their season with 32 wins; the most successful season of coach Thanh Pham’s nine year career at St. Thomas.
Pham said it “stung” to see his team’s hopes of reaching the Final Four end for the second year in a row, but he gave the Eagles credit.
“It’s always hard at the end of the season when you’ve worked so hard all year and to see (his team) not put forth their best effort stings a little bit,” Pham said. “Give Eastern credit, they really took it to us.”
Tommie freshman Kelly Foley, the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s National Freshman of the Year, completed three kills in the first nine points of the match, but Eastern’s Courtney Reinhold put the Tommies out of system with seven kills in the rest of the set.
Senior setter Ashley Maher said the Eagle’s offensive pressure late in the first set and throughout the rest of the match was tough to combat.
“Eastern really kept the pressure on us, and we didn’t play our best,” Maher said. “We would come up with a big play, and they would just follow it up.”
Junior defensive specialist Kia Johnson said it was hard to adjust to hitters as skilled as Reinhold.
“I think we saw hitters that we’ve never seen before, and we didn’t really make adjustments to it right away,” Johnson said.
The Tommies rallied to a 22-22 tie with help from freshman outside hitter Jill Greenfield’s serving run but eventually fell to the Eagles 26-24.
The Eagles turned up the pressure in the second set. Pham said Eastern’s aggressive attitude gave them an edge.
“When they were out of system they were taking aggressive swings at the ball, and when we were out of system we were just free-balling it to them,” Pham said. “They were always putting good pace on the ball, and we could never get our middle game running.”
Foley agreed that the pressure was immense.
“Whenever we were out of system we would just give them a free ball, and they would shove it down our throats,” Foley said.
In the second set, the Tommies rallied back from a 15-6 deficit to make the score 16-10 but fell to the Eagles again, this time 25-18.
The Tommies found themselves down 22-19 and facing elimination in the third set when St. Thomas used its second timeout of the set.
Pham joked that during the time out he told his players “basically not to suck.”
Maher said her team kept pushing until the very end.
“You always still think you can pull it out until it’s actually over,” Maher said. “We just said to keep pushing harder and keep working hard for every single ball and every single play because it’s not over yet.”
After the timeout, Eastern’s Reinhold came up with three kills to finish out the third set 25-19 and secure victory for the Eagles.
Pham said his team did everything he told them to do.
“They did everything I asked them, and I’m extremely proud of them,” Pham said.
Pham said he was especially proud of how his team was able to come together this season after seven of last year’s starters graduated.
“Graduating seven seniors, we were not supposed to be great. It’s just awesome to have made it back here,” Maher said.
Senior middle blocker Taylor Cross said this year’s freshmen played a big role in filling the void.
“I couldn’t talk about how great our season has been without (the freshmen),” Cross said. “They are the heart and soul of our team and they just make me proud. As a senior, I’m so excited to see everything they’re going to accomplish.”
Briggs LeSavage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.