Nearly champions, volleyball takes another leap forward

When the wound of a championship loss heals, volleyball will be able to look back on an impressive year: the most wins since 2000 and the first trip to the Atlantic 10 title game since 2002.

The team finished second in the A-10 with a 22-8 record, closing the season with a 3-1 loss to league powerhouse Dayton in the championship game and resting on the bubble for the NCAA tournament with the No. 60 RPI in the nation.

They didn’t make it. When the field of 64 was announced at the selection show Sunday, the Colonials’ season officially came to an end. But in that season, the team took another leap forward following last year’s 16-14 Cinderella season with an electric chemistry that permeated every spike, dig and kill.

“I think in seasons past, we’ve really had to work on team chemistry early on. This year for some reason it was there the whole time,” senior outside hitter Kelsey Newman said. “We’ve just been so dialed in and focused.”

Athletes are often emotional on the court or the field, but this team was different. Members of the team shrieked after a big kill, slammed white-knuckled fists on the hardwood after a bad error and roared in each others faces in the huddle.

They were unabashedly themselves, sometimes to a fault: The team struggled with errors. The free-flinging group led the A-10 with 13.84 kills per set and 2.75 blocks per set, but was fourth in hitting percentage largely because of 594 errors during the season. The Colonials tallied 45 errors in a 3-1 loss to Saint Louis on Oct. 10 as their frenetic energy had players diving for the same balls and running into each other.

As the season went on, a strong home-court advantage emerged for the Colonials. GW’s home record ended at 11-3, but the team’s record on the road was 7-3, with a 4-2 mark on neutral courts.

Marquee wins, like five-set triumphs over Dayton and VCU, came at home. Tough losses, including a sweep to the same VCU team and a five setter at Duquesne, happened on the road.

Part of that strength at home, head coach Amanda Ault said, stemmed from the growing volleyball fan base in Foggy Bottom as the team progressed through the season to qualify for the A-10 tournament for the second year in a row. The Colonials drew 32 percent more fans to games, growing their total audience from 2,847 in 2013 to 3,753 this year. University President Steven Knapp, who has spoken about how much he likes the sport, was spotted at a game earlier in the fall.

“We know we need to have a product that pulls everybody there,” Ault said. “Having the home-court advantage is something that I think has been great for us and I want to see build in the future.”

The program’s future will have to overcome the loss of two top performers and a key source of the team’s energy in seniors Newman and middle hitter Landon Garvik.

Newman earned a spot on the All A-10 First Team along with sophomore middle blocker Chidima Osuchukwu following the A-10 tournament, though Newman did not compete in the tournament after injuring herself in a game against Davidson on Nov. 8.

Still, Newman said she has no regrets and that her final year was also her best. Newman averaged 3.74 kills per set, tied for the team high with Osuchukwu. She earned a spot on the All A-10 Second Team after her junior year, ranked second on the team with 290 kills and 922 attacks and played in all but two of GW’s sets her sophomore year, and finished fifth on the team with 161 kills as a freshman.

“This is my favorite season. I told the girls thank you for everything, for working harder for me and giving me such a special senior year,” Newman said. “I am very lucky to have a season with these freshman. I’ve had so much fun.”

Freshmen like defensive specialist Christina Porada and outside hitter Aaliya Davidson emerged as role players who will make up for leaders like Newman in the future. Porada played 110 sets for the Colonials this season and tallied 2.16 digs per set, while Davidson posted 2.19 kills per set in 69 sets.

But GW’s offense, two years out from a 10-18 season, brought the team to the top tier of the A-10 and the brink of a national tournament. Ault said that mistakes and all, the team’s energy was a critical factor in becoming contenders and, despite its messy moments, she will remember this season especially well.

“I enjoy being around these guys. I think that says a lot. We all enjoy being together and being around one another. Team chemistry is so important,” Ault said. “When you have that, all the fun moments are that much better.”

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