Eight months ago, when the Towson volleyball team was in negotiations to make an appearance in the Panther Challenge hosted by Pittsburgh, Tigers coach Don Metil made arrangements for the team to visit Kennywood, an amusement park in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, the day after the invitational.
That perk proved even more satisfying after Towson upset then-No. 7 Pittsburgh in four sets on Saturday night. The 25-12, 25-23, 16-25, 25-18 win was the program’s first against a ranked opponent.
“It was definitely better coming off a win,” senior setter Katie McCracken said. “I think we would have had fun either way, but I think it just really helped us appreciate having that win the night before.”
The victory also was coach Don Metil’s 202nd of his career with the Tigers, making him the winningest volleyball coach in school history. Metil, who is 202-74 in 10 seasons, passed Cathy Cain, who compiled a 201-143 record from 1989 to 1998, and the players were happy to help him gain that achievement.
“We had never beaten a ranked team, and Don had been coaching here for so long,” sophomore outside hitter Victoria Barrett said. “He deserved it.”
The outcome was especially meaningful for Metil because he grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, which is about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh and was a setter at California University of Pennsylvania — which is about 35 miles south of Pittsburgh — until he graduated in 1996 with a dual bachelor’s in secondary education and sports medicine.
“It was obviously a historic moment for the Towson program and obviously a special day for me,” he said. “There was always the hope that I would be able to come back home [to Towson] and at some point in time in the CAA schedule surpass Cathy. But to do it in Pittsburgh where I grew up and can think back to myself seeing matches there in that arena as a kid was kind of surreal for me. And to do it against a ranked opponent, we’re feeling pretty good right now because we played pretty well.”
Saturday did not begin smoothly despite Towson (10-0) sweeping American in the opening match. Metil said the Tigers encountered stiff resistance from an Eagles squad that nearly matched Towson’s intensity.
McCracken, who ranks second on the team in assists (177) and fourth in digs (58), agreed with her coach.
“For the Pittsburgh game, we really wanted to prove that we could do better than we did in the American game,” she said. “We knew that to beat Pitt, we’d have to play a lot better than we did against American.”
After the win against American, the Tigers had more than five hours to scout the Panthers. Metil said he and assistant coaches David Beck and Mariana Silva focused on Pittsburgh’s laborious five-set victory against Cincinnati on Sept. 2.
“I think one of the biggest things we drove home to the team was, we saw them play a five-set match against Cincinnati, and not taking anything away from Cincinnati, some of the things that we saw Cincinnati be able to do against Pitt at that time kind of inspired some belief into the squad that this could actually happen,” Metil said, noting that the Panthers’ passing wasn’t terribly crisp and that he thought Towson could isolate certain matchups at the net.
The quick study worked as the Tigers raced out of the gate. They recorded 9 1/2 blocks in a first set that they won easily.
“I think the turning point was the first set, how we started off,” said Barrett, a New Mexico State transfer who leads the team in kills (104) and ranks second in digs (75) and fifth in blocks (24). “We went in with a lot of energy, and the energy didn’t drop throughout the whole match. We may have made a couple errors and went through a little rough phase, but overall the energy was very high and very intense throughout the whole game.”
Metil said he started to feel comfortable that Towson would close out the match after Pittsburgh coach Dan Fisher called a timeout with the Tigers leading 20-14 in the fourth set.
“At that point, all of our data said we were passing at almost 60 percent perfect, and we’re a real hard team to stop when we’re in system,” Metil said. “So we felt pretty good. I think I can recall looking over at David when we came out of that timeout and got another point and saying, ‘I think we’re going to do this.’ We kind of just smiled at each other, and the other four points put us in the history-making process for Towson volleyball.”
The three victories at the Panther Challenge — including a 25-15, 25-23, 29-27 decision over Bowling Green on Friday — have helped the program overcome a tumultuous offseason in which assistant coaches Terry Hutchinson and Megan Shifflett Bachmann were hired away by Georgia State and George Mason, respectively.
Metil pointed out that the addition of Beck, Silva, Barrett and several other newcomers had turned over the Tigers’ roster from a year ago by almost 50 percent.
“I think it speaks volumes to where our culture is at to be able to invite that many new people and they all kind of fall into the roles that they embrace and understand some of the things we try to do holistically,” he said. “There was a lot of passion out there against Pitt that night — even from some of our kids that didn’t see the court. With just the happiness and belief and hope and tears at the end of the match, we said that [win] was for every single athlete that was told they were too short or maybe just not talented enough to play at that next level.”
Confidence should not be a concern for a program that has captured the last three Colonial Athletic Association championships and is just outside of the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s Top 25 poll. But the Tigers said Saturday’s results can serve as a springboard for the remainder of the season.
“I think it provides a lot of momentum,” McCracken said. “I do think we have something to live up to, but it’s providing a lot of drive within the team, knowing that we can perform at that level all the time. So we’re just trying to maintain that.”
Barrett said last weekend is a reminder of the team’s potential.
“I think we set very high expectations for ourselves after this weekend, and we know what we’re capable of,” she said. “From this point on, I feel like we can only expect ourselves to live up to those standards that we set. I don’t think it’s necessarily pressure because we know what we’re capable of, and it’s what we did last weekend. So we just need to keep doing that all of the time.”
Saturday, 1 p.m.