Alabama State rallied to take the final two sets from Alabama A&M in the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament in Jackson, Miss., on Sunday, giving the Hornets their first-ever conference volleyball championship.
The victory gives Alabama State (25-15) a berth in the upcoming NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. The Hornets will learn their fate on Sunday when the NCAA volleyball selection committee chooses the first and second round sites for games on Dec. 5-6 and Dec. 6-7. Alabama State is one of 31 teams in the 64-team field receiving an automatic bid.
The winners will advance to four regionals on Dec. 13-14. The championship will be held the following weekend in Seattle’s Key Arena.
While the Hornets have no idea who they will face, it’s a safe bet the SWAC champion likely will be paired with one of the top four seeds that could include current leaders Texas of the Big 12, Penn State of the Big 10, Washington of the Pac 12 and either Missouri or Florida from the Southeastern Conference.
Alabama State’s path to the championship was a difficult one from the start. The Hornets opened the tournament with Southern and lost 22-25 and 22-25 in a best-of-five series, just one more loss from the loser’s bracket. ASU rallied to win 25-15, 25-22 and 15-5 to advance to the second round, where they disposed of Arkansas-Pine Bluff 23-25, 25-23, 25-22 and 25-18.
They won the first two sets from Jackson State on Sunday morning, 25-22 and 25-23, then dropped the next three to force a second match later in the morning. After losing the first game 24-26, the Hornets came back to win the next three over the Lady Tigers to advance to the championship round against Alabama A&M, which had beaten Texas Southern minutes earlier.
Alabama State lost the first game 28-30, won the second 29-19 and lost the third 22-25, putting A&M on the verge of the championship.
“It was an excellent match and very suspenseful, but I think it is like my ladies have done all year and that is they have been resilient,” said ASU coach Penny Lucas-White, who was named SWAC Coach of the Year. “I’ve never seen them give up at any time during a match and I am very pleased with their performance.”
Alabama State rallied to win the last two matches, 25-21 and 18-16 to win the school’s first-ever volleyball championship.
“I think what our ladies decided to do outside the season had an impact on this season,” Lucas-White said. “They worked hard in the weight room, they worked hard in the classroom and I think they reaped the benefits. They understood what it meant to win the SWAC. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but they were willing to pay the price.”
Rachel Smith earned most valuable player honors in the tournament, helping ASU grab the championship game with a double-double performance, recording 19 kills, 14 digs and a team-high five blocks.
“Rachel has consistently gotten better as the season progressed,” Lucas-White said. “You can look at her stats and see how she has increased her numbers. Once we gave her the test that she needs to kill half the balls that are set to her, she kind of took that to heart and she was able to deliver.”
Myla Marshall hit .429 while collecting 15 kills to help her earn all-tournament honors.