By Perry Mattern '14
On Friday, November 13, the Shippensburg Universityvolleyball team, which then sat at 25-8 on the 2015 season, was in second place in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Eastern Division with two matches remaining in the regular season. A berth to the PSAC playoffs had been secured, and now the team had its eye set on a possible conference championship and a likely trip to the NCAA tournament.
Only a major slip up could have prevented Shippensburg from making the NCAA field for the third time in four years. A loss to an eight-win Kutztown team that sits at the bottom of the PSAC East? Yes, that would be a major slip up. “That was by far the most stressful
match of my coaching career,” said head coach Leanne Piscotty of that Friday the thirteenth match—a scare that included SU trailing 11-4 in the decisive fifth set.
“I was trying so hard to keep my cool, and we just couldn’t find a rhythm. I thought they had us for sure—11-4? I was already thinking about what I was going to say to them after the match.”
Instead, SU found their rhythm. A 13-4 run by the Raiders led to a 17-15 set victory and a three-sets-to-two match victory. While the magnitude of the comeback wasn’t lost on Piscotty, her fun-loving team had a different response.
“I said, ‘You guys have no idea how big of a bullet you just dodged.’ And they were like, ‘It’s OK, coach, we’re going to get the bid (to the NCAA Tournament) when we win the conference.’”
Piscotty was stunned, but laughed. As head coach, she had totaled an impressive 243 wins in eleven seasons, but never won a conference championship. After nearly suffering their worst loss of the season, how could her players say they would win the conference?
“They just knew.”
The Comeback Kids
The next day in East Stroudsburg didn’t go much better, as SU had to squeak out 27-25 wins in the first two sets before dismantling the 7-24 Warriors in the third set to win the match.
“I think that having the bad weekend going into the PSAC championships may have ended up being a good thing, because we knew we still had work to do,” Piscotty said. However, there wasn’t much time as archrival West Chester arrived in Shippensburg for the first round of the PSAC Tournament.
The teams split the first four sets, but Heiges Field House grew louder than it had all season as Ship went on an unfathomable 14-2 run to start the fifth set. SU won the set 15-6 to win the match, moving on to face Edinboro in the PSAC semifinals.
Edinboro had defeated SU nearly three months earlier in a tight five-set match. Now, in the PSAC semifinals, it didn’t appear it would be as close, as Edinboro won the first two sets.
Although elimination from the PSAC Tournament was just a set away, the confidence remained high.
“It wasn’t as frustrating. We weren’t playing poorly,” Piscotty said.
She was right. With their backs against the wall, the Raiders won the next two sets to tie the match.
In the fifth set, SU won four of the first five points and never looked back in a 15-11 victory that sealed SU’s trip to the conference finals.
The Missing Piece
Perhaps the biggest difference between Edinboro’s and Shippensburg’s two meetings was freshman Morgan DeFloria.
The incredibly athletic outside hitter is hard to miss. DeFloria is often the fastest and highest jumper on the floor. Despite her natural athleticism, there was an adjustment period to the college game.
“I was nervous because getting to know the girls’ personalities did take awhile,” DeFloria said. “To be immersed so quickly was almost kind of confusing. At the beginning of the season I was definitely nervous to make mistakes.”
The roster around DeFloria was experienced and talented. Maura Nolan, an all-region junior setter, ran the show superbly. Senior middle blockers Faith Athey and Taylor Gottshall formed the best blocking combination in school history. The all-around play of junior Annie Goerl and the serving excellence of sophomore Courtney Malott gave SU two dependable six-rotation players. Defensively, the Raiders were anchored by the calm of senior Laura Plank and redshirt sophomore Maria Peluso.
What the Raiders needed was a hitting machine—DeFloria was exactly that. Piscotty and DeFloria’s teammates saw her potential, so they encouraged her to be aggressive and swing away.
In the PSAC semifinals, DeFloria racked up twenty-one kills—the most by an SU player all season—while making just four errors for a career-high .395 hitting percentage.
“Morgan went through a season and was no longer playing like a freshman,” Piscotty said of DeFloria’s performance in the conference tournament. “She was finding her own, and she really felt the support of the coaching staff and her teammates.”
‘Took Long Enough’
The Raiders set the tone quickly in the conference championship match against Clarion as Malott recorded a kill after a long rally in the first point of the match.
“They celebrated point one harder than they had celebrated match points in previous matches,” Piscotty said. “We just felt so connected with one another.”
DeFloria’s hot streak carried into the finals, where she recorded a match-high seventeen kills with five blocks on her way to taking home tournament MVP honors.
SU had too much momentum for Clarion to handle, and the Raiders won the PSAC championship, 3-1. In her twelfth season, Piscotty had her elusive PSAC title.
“That was just unbelievable. Just to have that stress (gone). It was incredibly surreal,” she said. “Even now when I watch the videos, I get goose bumps; I get emotional.”
Because of all the disappointments at the PSAC Tournament in prior years, winning the championship became, “a happy thought,” Nolan said. “But I knew we could do it.”
“We just had so much momentum and energy,” Piscotty added. “We had this amazing peace that came over us, and we just knew, especially once we got into the finals.”
“We should’ve won it all four years,” Gottshall joked.
Just like the players had promised Piscotty, the Raiders earned their automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning the conference. The stellar performance led to SU earning the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic Regional—the highest seed ever achieved by Shippensburg.
However, the gap between PSACs and the NCAA Tournament was more than a week, spanning Thanksgiving. The Raiders were unable to rediscover their momentum, and fell to Gannon in four sets in the first round of the regional.
Both Piscotty and her players acknowledged how difficult it was to replicate the high with which SU had played in the conference tournament. SU was one of three higher seeds to lose in the first round—all PSAC vs. PSAC matchups—further illustrating the difficulty of winning the conference title.
Months later, as the team looks back on the season, the loss to Gannon is a mere afterthought. Reminiscing about that weekend in Johnstown brings back smiles—almost tears for Piscotty. “It just seemed like such a large mountain to climb, and then to be able to do it and get on top and stick your flag in, it’s just like, wow.”
The graduation of Athey, Gottshall, and Plank certainly leaves some holes to fill for the Raiders, but the anticipation of 2016 has already started, especially for upcoming senior Nolan.
“We better win it again.”
Perry Mattern ‘14 is graduate assistant in the Sports Information Office.