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After learning NCAA tournament path, Towson volleyball eager to show it belongs: ‘I hope we’re still hungry'

Silvia Grassini, #9, is the Towson Tigers middle blocker.
Silvia Grassini, #9, is the Towson Tigers middle blocker. (Towson Athletics/Towson Athletics)

This was one of those occasions when Don Metil was happy to be proved wrong.

Before the start of the 2019 season for the Towson women’s volleyball team, the seventh-year coach huddled with assistant coaches Terry Hutchinson and Megan Shifflett Bachmann and laid out a pair of objectives: win at least as many matches as lost and carve out a spot in the six-team field for the Colonial Athletic Association tournament.

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That perspective, however, flipped Sept. 7 after the Tigers swept a Princeton squad that had won three Ivy League championships in the past four years.

“When we were able to beat them 3-0, I thought that was a pretty special moment for us,” Metil said. “Looking back on it, even though it was probably the first week of September, it kind of defined who we could be.”

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On Sunday night, a week after Towson had earned only its second NCAA Division I tournament berth and first since 2004, the team learned its postseason path. The Tigers (28-2) will meet American University (24-7) in a first-round match Friday in University Park, Pennsylvania. The winner will advance to a second-round tilt against the winner of No. 11 seed Penn State (24-3)-Princeton (17-7).

After waiting a week to find out the team’s first-round opponent, senior Marrisa Wonders was just happy to be done with the mystery.

“I liked the uncertainty for a little bit, but eventually, we were all like, ‘We want to know who we’re playing. We want to know where we’re going,’” said Wonders, the CAA’s Player and Setter of the Year. “So we’re looking forward to it.”

It will mark the first time since 2010 that Towson and the Eagles will face each other, and Metil said that unfamiliarity should prove beneficial.

“That way, everybody has to bring their 'A' game,” he said. “Sometimes when you play an opponent and you see that opponent again, if you were successful the first time, you might let down your guard or have some type of mental thought process that it’s going to be as easy as it was the first time. But to have someone in the first round that we’ve never seen before is going to create a heightened sense of urgency and execution.”

Towson became the first team in conference history to go 16-0 in the regular season and capture the tournament championship. The title is the program’s first since 2015 when that squad shared it with James Madison, and the current team’s 28 wins are the most in the rally era since the 2001 squad went 28-4.

The Tigers are riding a 22-match winning streak — a single-season record outpacing the 19-match streak in 2003 — and own the No. 36 RPI, but feel like they are flying under the radar. Junior defensive specialist Camryn Allen said the chatter among online volleyball circles is that Towson is one of the weaker participants.

“I think it will be good to actually get a chance to play one of the higher-ranked schools,” the Ellicott City native and Centennial graduate said. “Everyone was saying in the beginning that we don’t deserve to be ranked that high because we hadn’t beaten a Top 25 or a Top 50 team. Now we have a chance to prove that we should have been ranked that high.”

Senior outside hitter Olivia Finckel said she can almost understand the disdain. But she also revealed that the players have internalized the criticism and converted it into motivation.

“I think it’s given us a little bit more drive to prove that we did earn this and that we’ve been working hard enough to make those jumps to be up there with them,” the Baltimore native and Dulaney graduate said.

Metil said he got a hint of the players’ determination in the preseason.

“In July, they were talking about rings and championships,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘That’s great to talk about, but we’ve talked about those things before.’ There’s many kids, many athletes that came before Liv and Cam Allen that have said those words, and they just never came true. So for them to speak that aggressively early on and keep their eyes on the prize and work hard day in and day out, the [win streak of] 22 matches are kind of a by-product of these kids and what they’ve determined to set out to do.”

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The Tigers boast several individual standouts. The 5-foot-11 Wonders, who joined Hofstra’s Shellane Ogoshi as the only players in CAA history to capture both Player and Setter of the Year honors in the same season, ranks seventh in the nation in assists per set (11.6) and 27th in total assists (1,199). Joining Wonders on the league’s first team were freshman middle blocker Lydia Wiers, who was selected as the Rookie of the Year, senior middle blocker Silvia Grassini and Finckel — all of whom have at least 200 kills and 100 blocks this fall.

But when Towson takes the court against the Eagles, nearly two weeks will have passed since the players’ last competitive match in a straight-sets sweep of James Madison for the CAA tournament crown. That’s why Metil had the players practice for two hours a few hours before Sunday night’s selection show.

None of the players have competed this late in the season, but Allen said she does not anticipate nerves emerging as a potential complication.

“Honestly, I think we’re more excited because there’s no pressure,” she said. “It’s not like we have nothing to lose, but we haven’t won it 15 times in a row, and we’re expected to win it again. We can just relax and know that we’re going to have fun.”

Metil said the mood around Sunday’s practice was light. But he also noted that there was a seriousness underneath the laughs.

“I think there’s a lot of confidence,” he said. “I think they’re level-headed, but with all this team has accomplished, I hope it continues to drive us forward. Now that we’ve met almost every goal — if not all of the goals that we set as individuals and as a team — I hope we’re still hungry to set a new goal. … I think they’re still excited to continue the journey rather than say we’ve accomplished what we’ve accomplished and now whatever happens, happens. I hope that they’re setting new goals based on tonight and that we can achieve even more.”

Perfection

The Towson volleyball team is one of only three programs that have finished a season with an unblemished record in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) portions of their schedules and the only school to have achieved that feat since the turn of the century. Here is a list of the perfect records in CAA history.

Year; School; Colonial Athletic Association record

1986; William & Mary; 5-0

1987; William & Mary; 5-0

1988; William & Mary; 5-0

1989; William & Mary; 5-0

1990; William & Mary; 5-0

1991; William & Mary; 5-0

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1993; William & Mary; 5-0

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1994; George Mason; 5-0

1995; George Mason; 6-0

1996; George Mason; 6-0

2003; Towson; 14-0

2012; Towson; 12-0

2019; Towson; 16-0

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