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Mired in last place in 2013, Towson volleyball is on brink of CAA tournament in 2014

Towson volleyball players, left to right: Haley Pa'akaula, Candace Steadman , Capri Tirrell and Barbara Lopez.
Towson volleyball players, left to right: Haley Pa'akaula, Candace Steadman , Capri Tirrell and Barbara Lopez. (Doug Kapustin for Towson Athletics)

"Be remembered." That's the phrase that was printed on the back of the sheets of paper the Towson women's volleyball team was studying before its recent home match against Charleston.

Don Metil, second-year coach of the Tigers, gives the team a different motivational quote each week.

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"We're always telling our girls, 'How do you want to be remembered?' because your performance is going to be a reflection of the program and even your attitude," Metil said. "So those are things that we work on daily, weekly, and I think it's made a difference."

The Tigers, now 25-4, sit in third place in the Colonial Athletic Association with an 11-3 conference record after finishing 10-24 overall and 2-12 in conference last season, Metil's first with the program.

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With just a weekend remaining in the regular season, the only teams ahead of Towson in the standings are Charleston (12-2) and Hofstra (11-2). The Tigers took a two-set lead before losing in five sets in both of their matches against Charleston this season and split the season series with Hofstra, losing 3-1 on the road, but winning 3-1 at home at SECU Arena on Oct. 31.

After Towson finished in last place in the conference last season, perhaps the most notable factor in its turnaround is that the same coach sits at the helm and that the core group of players has hardly changed.

Paige Sekerak, a senior libero-defensive specialist who has seen the program go through its share of changes over the past four years, said she and her teammates have been trying to figure out what has made the difference.

"A couple weeks ago, coach was saying that the biggest difference is now we have the belief that we can win, the will to win," she said. "Last year, because we had so many losses, if we did get another loss, it was just another day. So it's definitely just all mental, a new attitude and perspective that we have on the season."

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Metil also believes the team's success this year has come from a more rigorous work ethic. The coaching staff keeps statistics every practice, and the players are held responsible for meeting numerically measurable goals.

"We have a standard in our practice gym for statistically what we're trying to obtain," Metil said.

Senior outside hitter Saitaua Iosia added: "Now we really try to prevent those mistakes in our stats. We really just take everything we do now more seriously."

Metil spent 2002 and 2003 at Division III Notre Dame of Maryland, where he led the team to the Atlantic Women's College Conference championship in 2002. In his single season at Lees-McRae in 2004, his team made the NCAA Division II tournament. He spent six seasons at UMES, advancing to the NCAA Division I tournament in 2011 and 2012.

"We were able to bring some of that success with us," Metil said of translating his previous achievements to Towson. Senior opposite hitter Victoria Williams and Iosia, who leads the Tigers in kills with 415, began their college careers at UMES before following Metil to Towson last season.

"The transition was not easy at first. … It was difficult to keep the focus and not get frustrated," Iosia said. "It's been a lot better this year."

In their final matches of the regular season, the Tigers will take on North Carolina-Wilmington (19-9, 9-5) on Friday night and Elon (6-24, 1-13) on Saturday night. Charleston also has two matches remaining, one of which will be against second-place Hofstra, which plays three more times before the end of the season. But regardless of which team finishes atop the CAA, the Tigers are guaranteed a spot in the conference tournament to contend for the CAA championship and a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Iosia and Sekerak hope to conclude their college careers by achieving that.

"Most, or maybe all, of the quotes [Coach Metil has] given us talk about what champions do," Sekerak said. "And hopefully everyone else on the team views it that way, that all of us could become champions."

Metil added: "We told [the players] that regardless of whether they wanted to be remembered or not, our level of play, our will and our attitude were going to reflect on the people in the stands. They're going to be remembered, one way or another."

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