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The final score indicates the Barton College women’s volleyball team encountered a more difficult test than expected in the opening round of the NCAA Division II Conference Carolinas tournament Tuesday evening before a turnout of some 200 in Wilson Gymnasium.
However, head coach Jeff Lennox and his Lady Bulldogs downplayed a possible letdown against Erskine (South Carolina) College, the last-place team in the 11-team conference, and took the first step toward a second straight tournament championship with a 25-13, 25-23, 25-23 triumph.
The top four teams from each of the two divisions qualify for the conference tournament and Erskine drew the No. 4 seed from the South Division only because the division numbers just five teams and regular-season division champion Emmanuel is ineligible for postseason competition.
Barton, the North Division queen and overall regular-season conference champion 21-7) , rallied from a 23-21 deficit to seize the second set and tallied the last two points of the third set to advance into Saturday’s semifinals against South No. 2 Southern Wesleyan at 7:30 p.m. The Lady Bulldogs will host the remainder the tournament, including Saturday’s 5 p.m. semifinal pitting South winner North Greenville and North No. 2 Belmont Abbey. The championship is set for Sunday at 3 p.m. in Wilson Gym.
“They played well,” Lennox said of the Lady Fleet (2-23). “This was a good match for them for sure. For us, any win in the playoffs is good, and winning 3-0 is better.”
Springboarding Barton was the clutch play of standout freshman Kaytlin Elkins, who responded with17 kills, four service aces and eight digs. If the Lady Bulldogs needed a point, an accurate serve or a last-gasp defensive gem, Elkins stepped up.
“She was super clutch,” Lennox praised Elkins. “She played like she wasn’t a freshman. Ste stepped up when we needed her — especially at the end of sets.”
Elkins wasted no time asserting her presence with six kills, a tip and an ace in the opening set. With the score knotted 23-23 in the second set, Elkins served Barton to a 2-0 advantage with a pair of aces. In the final set, Elkins kills twice rallied Barton within a point and twice chopped the Lady Fleet’s edge to a point.
“We played as a team,” Elkins reviewed. “We all picked each other up and never let each other get down. We let them get to us a little bit, but we pulled each other out of it.”
Erskine notched the first point of the second set on freshman Reilly Bartlett’s kill. Barton fell behind 9-5, 15-11 and 17-12.. Each team needed a pair of time-outs during the set. A kill from senior Miranda Miller drew Barton even at 23-23. Then, Elkins delivered back-to-back aces.
“That was really big,” Elkins admitted. “(The set) was so close. That’s a lot of mental toughness and a lot of teamwork.”
“We have a bunch of freshman,” noted fifth-year Erskine head coach Heather Vahjen. “We played well, but Barton played that much better. If we had won that set, it would have given us a different look, showing that we can push through. That has troubled us all year.
“They had their best server behind the line, and we were in one of our weakest serve-receive rotations.”
Barton, victorious in 18 of its last 19 matches, trailed at various intervals in the third set, but forged leads of 8-7 on junior Haley Headley’s kill, 14-13 on junior Riley Bane’s ace, 18-16 on Elkins’ tip and 19-16 on Elkins’ ace. The Lady Bulldogs finally broke on top for keeps at 24-23 on 6-foot-2 junior Allie Cullens’ and ended the match on a shaky attack-error call.
“You don’t want the official to make that call,” Vahjen said, “but it was the right call. (The Erskine player) was under the net.”
In the opening set, freshman Ashley Owen and Miller served Barton out front 6-1. The margin grew to 16-7 with junior Maddison Thomson serving. The Lady Fleet, behind sophomore Kirsten Kaisser, freshman Faith Grant and senior Katie Blitch, pulled as close as 21-15 and 24-18 before Elkins put the set away with a kill.
“This is a first for me after losing seven seniors off three championship teams,” Erskine’s Vahjen pointed out.
Barton’s Elkins was complemented by Miller with 10 kills, junior Angelica Acevedo with a double-double of 31 assists and 10 digs, Cullens with three blocks, Bane with 18 digs — several of the spectacular variety — and Miller with 15 digs.
“We have a lot of young girls who are in the playoffs for the first time,” Lennox commented. “Learning to get through the nerves and settling in is never easy.”