Volleyball team wins conference, advances to playoffs

The North Alabama volleyball team celebrating before a match against Valdosta State Nov. 12. The Lions won their second straight Gulf South Conference tournament title Nov. 20 in a 3-2 nail-biter at West Florida. 

“Déjà vu” seemed to be the key phrase during the Gulf South Conference volleyball tournament championship Nov. 20 in Pensacola, Florida.

For the second straight season, North Alabama pulled off a 15-13 win in the fifth and final set against top-seeded West Florida to win the GSC championship and advance to the NCAA tournament.

“It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet,” said UNA coach Stephanie Radecki. “It was crazy, and I think everyone knew going into it that it was going to be an intense, high-level competition. We had prepared ourselves for that.”

UNA advanced to the conference tournament semifinals in Pensacola as the No. 3 seed after a 3-0 sweep against Valdosta State Nov. 15 before sweeping No. 2 Shorter Nov. 19.

After dropping the previous two matchups in the regular season to the Argos, the Lions knew it would be a challenge to repeat as conference champions, but stayed resilient.  

“We really had all the odds against us,” said senior Peyton Lang, the GSC tournament MVP. “But when were tied 13-13, it just kind of took me back to last year. We were down 9-6 in this game. Then, we came back and tied it up.”

UNA pulled off a 25-23 win in the first set to gain momentum, but West Florida would respond by dominating the second set, 25-11.

“The first five points doesn’t determine the match,” Radecki said. “One set doesn’t determine the match. We just continued to talk about that, and I think the girls really understood that and made the changes they needed to slowly get back into the groove.”

The Lions came back in the third set, but ultimately dropped it 25-22. Despite West Florida winning the swing set, UNA leveled the game back to a 2-2 contest with a momentum-shifting 25-13 win in the fourth set.

Trailing 9-6 in the fifth set, senior Natasha Fomina, the conference’s leader in kills, drilled two into the ground. Then, UWF had two attack errors to re-tie the game 10-10. Each team would then trade scores to make it 13-13.

With the game and the championship on the line, Lang had two consecutive kills to seal the win for UNA at 15-13.

“It was tied at 13, and I think (Radecki) called a timeout,” Lang said. “We decided what we wanted to run, then I got the first kill. After that, I was like, ‘Alright, let’s go, we’re going to get this next point.’ It felt really good.”

Joining Lang on the All-GSC tournament team from UNA was Fomina and junior libero Ashtyn Kapovich.

Lang had a match-high 17 kills and added 13 digs for the double-double against the Argos. Fomina added 13 kills, while Kapovich finished the game with a match-high 16 digs.

“I give credit to my teammates,” Kapovich said. “Win or lose, we always are on the bus acting like a team. We are just one big family.”

Two days removed from winning the conference for a second consecutive season, the team turned its attention to the playoffs during the NCAA selection show presentation at 306 Barbeque in downtown Florence Nov. 21 at 6 p.m.

UNA will travel to West Palm Beach to face West Florida for the fourth time this season, but this time in the first round of the playoffs, beginning Dec. 1.

“It’s always hard to play at team back-to-back, especially four times,” Radecki said. “It makes it a little more difficult, but easier to scout. It’s a team we know really well, and we’re ready for the NCAA tournament.”