Lions topple Argos for 17th GSC championship

UNA’s Ashtyn Kapovich (17), Jessica Austin (1), Andrea De Leon (24) and Sarah Ann Tillery (15) celebrate a point against West Florida in the Gulf South Conference Volleyball Tournament championship match Nov. 22.

The UNA volleyball team defeated West Florida 3-2 in a five-set championship showdown Nov. 22, earning the Lions their first Gulf South Conference title since 2006.

The conference championship is the 17th in the volleyball program’s history and the fourth under head coach Stephanie Radecki.

“It’s hard to describe,” Radecki said. “The last few years for our program have been a battle, getting back on track and getting back to our winning ways. This one means a lot.”

It was the second straight championship appearance for the Lions who fell to Valdosta State in the GSC title game last season.

UNA ran through the defending champs 3-0 in the semifinal match, but the memory of last year’s loss only motivated the Lions in the game against the Argos.

“We never wanted to feel the same way we felt when we lost to Valdosta in the finals last year,” said senior setter Andrea De Leon. “I feel like we demonstrated that the entire season. And the new players that came in, we fed them (the desire) to win a conference championship. It was a total team effort.”

West Florida has seemingly been UNA’s kryptonite over the last few seasons. Prior to Sunday’s win, the Lions were 1-9 against the Argos in the last 10 meetings, including two 3-0 losses to them in the 2015 regular season.

Despite the poor past performances against West Florida, UNA still felt good about its chances against the nationally ranked Argos.

“I think the girls were a lot more confident going into the match (this time) because we’ve been playing well,” Radecki said. “The girls were a lot more driven. (The GSC championship) is what they’ve been thinking about for an entire year.”

In the first set, the Lions went up 23-17 and seemed in firm control of the match. But a kill by West Florida’s Corisha Smith started a comeback that ended with the Argos in control 25-24.

It took a three-point rally for the Lions to finally take back the lead and win the set 30-28.

“In that first set we came out really strong,” De Leon said. “We prepared ourselves really well for it, but West Florida is a good team. Going into the match, we knew it was going to be a fight.”

West Florida controlled the second match 25-15 while UNA answered in the third with its own 25-15 win. The fourth and fifth sets would not be so lopsided.

Just like the first set, UNA seemed in control for most of the fourth set, jumping out to a 14-6 lead and then increasing West Florida’s deficit to nine points with a 18-9 lead. However, things began to unravel for the Lions soon after.

“We had a large lead in the first set, and West Florida chipped away and chipped away until they had it tied up,” Radecki said. “I feel like our girls remembered that in the fourth set, and that’s when West Florida started to make a drive.”

Kathryn Torre’s kill started a 17-6 Argo run that ended in a 26-24 set win for West Florida, sending the match into a deciding fifth set.

During the break, Radecki called on another Lion championship team for inspiration, referencing the UNA soccer team’s GSC championship shootout win against Lee.

“The first thing that (Radecki) said was, ‘champions are built in two overtimes and penalty kicks,’” De Leon said. “That (fifth set) was our penalty kicks, and it was our time. She said this is where all our hard work pays off.”

In the fifth set, the Argos jumped on the Lions quick. West Florida took a 13-8 lead and needed two more points to finish UNA off. But like the soccer team, the Lions did not flinch under the pressure.

A kill by sophomore Jessica Austin made the score 13-9 and sent Ashtyn Kapovich to the service line. Any service errors by the sophomore libero could have proven costly for the Lions. But Kapovich did not crack, serving the ball six times with no errors.

“Ashtyn did an outstanding job on the service line staying focused,” Radecki said. “Not only did she serve in, she served successful and put them out of system a lot. That made a huge difference in the fifth set.”

With the help of Kapovich’s clutch service, the Lions went on a 7-0 run to win the set 15-13 and topple the Argonauts 3-2.

Kapovich, named to the all-tournament team, led the Lions with 26 digs. Austin, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, had 23 kills. De Leon finished with 52 assists.

The volleyball team’s win gives UNA its third GSC championship in as many weeks with soccer winning the finals Nov. 8 and football clinching the title with a win over West Alabama Nov. 14.

“It’s been a special fall,” said Athletic Director Mark Linder. “To say these things happen on a regular basis would be incorrect. We need to enjoy this and remember what got us here: Keeping good coaches that care about their student-athletes.”

The UNA volleyball team advances to the NCAA Division II tournament as the South Region’s No. 6 seed. The Lions play Florida Southern in the first round Dec. 3.