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Volleyball enjoys a successful 2010 campaign

Blue Raiders grab pair of titles en route to NCAA Tournament

December 23, 2010 · Athletic Communications

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - This year marked yet another successful season for the Middle Tennessee volleyball team under the direction of head coach Matt Peck.

The Blue Raiders ran off an outstanding 29-6 mark, the third-best record in program history. Middle Tennessee also took home the outright regular season Sun Belt championship with a 15-1 record, becoming just the second MT squad in history to boast of such an accomplishment.

In postseason play, Middle Tennessee won its fourth Sun Belt Tournament title in the past five seasons and became the first SBC school to take home both the regular season and tournament title since 2007. The Blue Raiders are also the first school to win the championship on their home floor since UALR accomplished the feat 1998.

In their fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, Middle Tennessee ultimately fell to Big East Tournament champion Louisville, but Peck feels that doesn't change the fact that Middle Tennessee put together yet another good season.

"Once again we took home a conference championship and advanced to the NCAA Tournament," head coach Matt Peck said. "I think it was a good year for us overall. I think the ending was a bit more abrupt than we we expected, but it was still certainly a good season."

INDIVIDUAL STANDOUTS

The Blue Raiders boasted of several standout performers over the course of the season, but one of the main reasons for for their success was undoubtedly the play of senior Izabela Kozon, who put together one of the best individual seasons in Sun Belt history.

Kozon took home both the Sun Belt Player of the Year and Sun Belt Tournament Most Outstanding Player awards, becoming just the second Blue Raider to do so. Following the year, she would earn AVCA All-America Honorable Mention accolades for the first time in her career.

A winner of a Sun Belt record-tying five Player of the Week awards, Kozon was a steady force throughout the season for Middle Tennessee. The native of Warsaw, Poland, led the Sun Belt in kills per set, averaging four. She also hit at the best rate in her career with a .286 attack percentage, and chipped in 2.19 digs per set on defense.

Kozon ended her career with 1,679 kills and 1,118 digs. She is one of just two Blue Raiders to boast of at least 1,500 kills and 1,000 digs.

Junior Stacy Oladinni also had an impressive season for the Blue Raiders, taking home her second AVCA All-America Honorable Mention award in as many seasons. Oladinni was also honored with a second consecutive Second Team All-Sun Belt selection and All-Sun Belt Tournament accolades.

After playing as an opposite side attacker last season, Oladinni moved to the inside and became a valuable defender for the Blue Raiders. The native of La Vergne, Tenn., finished the season second in the Sun Belt in blocks per set, averaging 1.13.

On offense, Oladinni's furthered her reputation as one of the most efficient attackers in MT history. The junior averaged 2.01 kills per set at a .335 rate. Through three seasons in Murfreesboro, Oladinni ranks third in school history with a career .338 attack percentage.

Junior Maria Szivos made sure to leave a lasting mark on the school in her first season on campus after transferring from former Sun Belt school New Orleans. The native of Jazsbereny, Hungary, was one of three Blue Raiders to earn First Team All-Sun Belt honors. 

Szivos, who entered the year with a reputation as one of the most dangerous servers in the Sun Belt, led the Blue Raiders with a team-best 38 aces. However, the junior was a dynamic offensive force at the net as well, finishing third on the team with a 2.49 kill per set average and a .316 hitting percentage. Szivos also logged significant minutes on the back row and averaged 1.26 digs per set.

In one of the more stirring feats of the year, sophomore Ashley Adams emerged as one of the best offensive weapons in the Sun Belt after replacing an injured Alyssa Wistrick in the line-up early in the season. Adams, who played in just eight sets last season, took home First Team All-Sun Belt honors and averaged 3.06 kills per set.

Junior Lindsay Cheatham provided a great help on both offense and defense for the Blue Raiders. Cheatham put together a career season at middle blocker, averaging just under a block per set. Her offensive numbers were equally impressive, as she hit a blistering .378 for the season and .475 in conference play en route to averaging 1.90 kills per set.

Senior Sasha McGlothin battled back from an injury just before the season started, but that didn't slow her from becoming another key player down the stretch for Middle Tennessee. The Abilene, Texas, native tallied 49 kills and 34 blocks in just 28 sets of play. McGlothin finished her career ranked sixth all-time in blocks per set with 1.06.

Junior Brandi Waller also made an impact, posting 105 kills in just 59 sets. The New Albany, Ind., native was especially important when Kozon went down with injury, posting 26 kills over a four-match span. Waller also set a new career high with 11 kills against ACC foe Georgia Tech in Atlanta. 

"Izabela had an outstanding year, but what made this year so fun was our ability to spread things out on offense," Peck said. "At one point or another, Stacy, Ashley, Maria, Lindsay, Sasha and Brandi all stepped up and won matches for us. Because of that, I think that this was one of our most successful seasons offensively at Middle Tennessee."

While the Blue Raider defense at the net was impressive, junior Brynne Henderson proved to be the anchor of a strong reception game. The libero and Cincinnati, Ohio, native led the team in digs, putting up 3.49 per set, and helped replace the loss of Ashley Waugh, who had started at the position in both 2008 and 2009.

After appearing the majority of sets last season, sophomore Halie Vannoy appeared in all but 14 sets for the Blue Raiders this season and averaged just under a dig per set. The Morristown, Tenn., native set a season high with nine digs to help Middle Tennessee get by a tough Saint Louis team late in the season.

"Brynne and Halie did a great job for us this year," Peck said. "Brynne played in every single set this year and Halie got in for most of them. They both were great for us all year in playing defense and passing balls, and I expect them to get even better next season."

FRESHMEN STEP UP

After the graduation of some key individuals from the 2009 edition of MT Volleyball, Peck was forced to assign the roles of some key positions to the untested hands of freshmen Kendall Howard, Morgan Peterson and Angela Peyton.

"The three freshmen contributed a great deal for us," Peck said. "Of course Morgan and Angela did a good job running our offense and they matured a great deal over the course of the year. I'm really looking forward to working with them in the spring."

Perhaps the biggest uncertainty fell upon the setting duo of Peterson and Peyton. Faced with the graduation of four-year starter and the school's all-time assists leader in Leslie Clark, Middle Tennessee employed a dual setter offense to great success for much of the season.

Peterson, who sat out the 2009 season with a redshirt, played the majority of her time on the front row. The native of Seymour, Tenn., finished second on the team in assists and put up 5.95 per set to go along with 0.54 kills per set and 0.45 blocks per set on defense.

Peyton, a true freshman, was impeccable on the back line, averaging 1.42 digs per set to supplement her team-best 6.69 assists per set on offense. Peyton entered Murfreesboro with some familiarity to playing in a dual-setter system having served in the same roles for club and high school teams in her native Houston, Texas.

Howard took on the role of defensive specialist for the Blue Raiders, serving as an integral cog in the reception game. The Franktown, Colo., native recorded 1.71 digs per set, the most by a Middle Tennessee freshman since Kozon averaged 2.37 in the 2007 season.

"Kendall played in all but one set for us," Peck said. "I think she's going to come in and challenge for the libero position next year. She was outstanding on defense and serving, and she really helped us win a couple key matches."

SEASON IN REVIEW

The Blue Raiders began the season in familiar fashion, taking home victories in the first two matches for the fifth consecutive season, knocking off SEC opponent South Carolina and 2007 Sweet 16 foe Brigham Young at the State Farm Illini Classic before ultimately falling to host and sixth-ranked Illinois in four sets.

Middle Tennessee returned home to face a talent-laden Blue Raider Bash field, where they won over defending Conference USA champion Southern Miss, but fell in hard-fought affairs to major conference opponents in Duke, Auburn and Miami (Fla.).

"I think it's important to realize the players that we lost last season," Peck said. "Ashley Mead, Janay Yancey, Clark and Waugh were all very honored, very decorated players for us. I knew that we might be a bit shaky at the beginning of the season, and with the new people on the floor it might take a couple weeks to get going."

Over the next 40 days, Middle Tennessee did not record another loss.

Two days after the Miami match, the Blue Raiders started to get things turned around. Facing an undefeated Kansas team on their home floor in Lawrence, Kan., MT posted an outstanding sweep of the Jayhawks in front of a raucous crowd of 860. 

After a tough stretch in the previous home tournament, the Blue Raiders were prepared to respond in the Middle Tennessee Invitational, and they did so impressively with wins over Arkansas, UAB and reigning America East champion Albany.

MT kept it rolling in their last three-match weekend of the regular season at Denver. The Blue Raiders opened Sun Belt play with a sweep of Denver, but would post one of the most impressive results of the season a day later against 24th-ranked Long Beach State.

The 49ers were hot and coming off a win at Colorado State, who spent much of the year ranked in the top 15. However, Middle Tennessee was ready for the challenge, handing LBSU a 25-23 first set loss and engineering a dominant 25-9 second set victory to go into intermission with a seemingly comfortable 2-0 edge. Long Beach came roaring back to tie it at 2-2 with a pair of 25-20 wins, but Middle Tennessee ultimately proved victorious, winning the fifth and deciding set in a 17-15 nailbiter.

Later in the evening Middle Tennessee swept past defending Colonial Athletic champion VCU to head into the meat of the conference slate on a seven-match winning streak.

After a pair of road victories at UALR and Arkansas State, the Blue Raiders returned home for one of the most important stretches of the early conference season, beginning with a match against reigning regular season champion FIU.

The Panthers were entering the match on a mammoth 20-match unbeaten streak in conference play, and the meeting also served as a rematch of the 2009 Sun Belt title bout, which MT won. Behind a career-high-tying 25 kills and 12 digs from Kozon, the Blue Raiders grabbed an early 2-0 lead en route to an impressive four-set victory over FIU.

Following a sweep of Florida Atlantic a day later, another showdown was set, this time with arch-rival Western Kentucky for first place in the Sun Belt East. The Blue Raiders proved to be up to the challenge, sweeping past the Hilltoppers to grab sole possession and extend the winning streak to 12 matches.

With wins on the road at Troy and South Alabama on the ensuing weekend, the Blue Raiders became just the second team in school history to win 14 consecutive matches, tying the record set by the 2007 team.

However, as with all streaks, it ultimately came to an end. After Kozon suffered an ankle injury early in the opening set, the Blue Raiders fell in hard-fought four-set fashion at FIU. 

Faced with the absence of Kozon less than 24 hours later at Florida Atlantic, the Blue Raiders looked to new places for the majority of their offense. After dropping the first set 27-29, Cheatham, who was playing close to her native Deerfield Beach, took over to lead the Blue Raiders to a 3-1 win over the Owls. The junior posted a career-high 16 kills and four blocks in the match to kick off another Middle Tennessee win streak.

MT would also post victories over ULM and UL-Lafayette on the following weekend to set up a non-conference clash with ACC power Georgia Tech.

Kozon made her return in impressive fashion at GT with 18 kills, helping lead the Blue Raiders to their second victory over the Yellow Jackets in as many seasons.

After three more conference victories over North Texas, South Alabama and Troy, Middle Tennessee traveled to Bowling Green, Ky., to take on fellow East division leader to battle for the outright Sun Belt title in the regular season finale.

Once again, the Blue Raiders pulled out all the stops against their rivals, racing out to a 2-0 match lead, and closing out the sweep on the floor of E.A. Diddle Arena to grab just their second outright Sun Belt regular season title in history and extend their winning streak to eight matches.

The Sun Belt Tournament would play out in similar fashion to the regular season.

Hosting the tournament for the first time since 2005, the Blue Raiders entered the event on a mission, sweeping South Alabama in the opening round and then notching a four-set win over North Texas on the following day to set up yet another all-or-nothing clash with Western Kentucky.

In 2005, the Hilltoppers defeated Middle Tennessee at Alumni Memorial Gym to take home the tournament championship. This time, however, the Blue Raiders once again proved too much for WKU, grabbing an early 2-0 lead before ultimately sealing the deal with a 25-21 fourth set victory. 

"We've been very fortunate against Western Kentucky the past two seasons," Peck said. "To win six in a row against one of the best teams in the conference year-in and year-out, is a great accomplishment. Our girls know that the matches against WKU usually determine who will represent the Sun Belt in the NCAA."

Prior to falling in the NCAA Tournament to Louisville, the Blue Raiders set up for one final regular season contest against the Saint Louis Billikens. Middle Tennessee notched their 12th consecutive victory in a hard-fought four-set affair, becoming just the second MT squad two run off two separate win streaks of 12 matches or more.

OUTLOOK FOR THE FUTURE

Middle Tennessee finished the season on an excellent run, winning 26 their final 28 matches. The Blue Raiders are graduating just two players from the 2010 squad, and Peck looks for the experiences from the past year as motivation for the returning class.

"Having our setters coming back with a year of experience is huge for us as well as the return of Alyssa, who was a starter for us in 2009," Peck said. "We are losing both Sasha and Izabela, but I think next year is going to be another great year for us. Our kids are battle-tested, and I think our girls are going to be ready to try and exceed the accomplishments from this year."

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