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Under the Jeff Lennox regime, the Barton College women’s volleyball program is accumulating quite the largesse.
Add a second straight NCAA Division II Conference Carolinas tournament championship to the list.
The Lady Bulldogs shook off a second-set lull inside Wilson Gym on Sunday afternoon and quickly regained control before proceeding to a 25-18, 25-23, 25-15 sweep of Belmont Abbey in the finals.
Barton, now 23-7 overall, wrapped up its second straight trip to the NCAA tournament and will learn its postseason destination on Monday, Nov. 20, when brackets are unveiled on the NCAA website, www.ncaa.com. For Barton, the automatic bid comes on the heels of wrapping up the program’s second straight North Division championship and overall No. 1 seed for the conference tournament, thereby giving the Lady Bulldogs the chance to host the semifinals and finals at home. Barton swept its way into the championship round with a 3-0 sweep of Southern Wesleyan in Saturday’s semifinal round. Belmont Abbey, the No. 2 seed from the North Division, had a four-match winning streak snapped and ends its season at 17-12.
Including the men’s program, the Bulldogs have now won the last three regular-season championships and tournament crowns in the sport of volleyball. The 2016 men’s team reached the championship round of the conference tournament.
“I think we’ve built something really well,” Lennox said. “I give all the credit to my players and my wife (Melissa), who is just super supportive without an assistant. She does more than an assistant would do anyway, and has really helped us build something great.”
Barton’s serve-receive was nearly flawless, only yielding one ace to the Crusaders. From the service line, Barton meted out 10 aces, three each from freshman Kaytlin Elkins and redshirt junior Riley Bane. Bane, a Fike High product who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, had a team-high 19 digs to pace four Lady Bulldogs in double figures.
Barton never trailed in the opening set after separating from an early 6-6 tie. A combo block from Elkins and senior Courtney Wiseman and a solo from junior setter Angelica Acevedo put the Lady Bulldogs up by two. Using a match-high .300 attack percentage in the first set, Barton ran its lead to as much as nine at 22-13. Elkins, Barton’s first-year sensation who was named the league’s Freshman of the Year, had seven of the Lady Bulldogs’ 12 kills in the set. Bane was active defensively, getting eight digs in the first set.
“We dig and transition really well,” Lennox said. “Which means we dig the ball and then set and score. That’s something we work on every day, and it’s a big expectation and big standard for us. We take a lot of pride in that. When we dig the ball, we expect to score every time.”
Abbey closed to within 23-17, but Barton returned to its system to log a kill from junior Haley Headley and the set ender from Elkins.
Barton was outhit .080-.020 in the second set, but stabilized itself on Acevedo’s serve. Barton owned an early 4-0 lead on consecutive kills by Elkins, but the Crusaders rallied to force an 11-11 tie and took a three-point lead on Cassidy Bonito’s kill. That forced a Barton timeout, and Barton trailed 16-12 after Wiseman was stuffed by Mackenzie Chrapliwy and Coreen Norwood.
But a service error turned it over to Acevedo at 16-13, and five straight points sent the Bulldogs back into the lead to stay in the second set.
“There was a time there where I felt we weren’t playing defense well enough,” Lennox said. “But we settled back down and stepped up and got disciplined. Our girls are very battle tested, and they take a lot of pride in doing things right. And I think that showed today.”
Barton reached set point at 24-21, with Abbey putting pressure on following a Barton attack error and a Norwood kill. But Acevedo fed the ball to Elkins, who slammed it away cross court to put the Lady Bulldogs up 2-0.
In the third set, the Lady Bulldogs owned a slim 10-9 lead before a 10-1 surge flattened the visitors. Keying the run was the hitting of senior opposite hitter Miranda Miller and the serving of freshman libero Ashley Owen. Owen accounted for six points in the run, including a pair of aces. Bane had six digs in the final set.
The MOP honor came as a surprise for Bane.
“That’s one of our biggest things,” Bane said of Barton’s defense. “Coach tells us, never let a ball hit the ground. And so that’s what we did.”
Wiseman’s kill on Barton’s second match point opportunity set off the celebration.
Two other Barton players joined Bane in double-digit digs, with Miller having 12 digs. Owen notched 11.
Chrapliwy’s 11 kills led Belmont Abbey, held to just .075 on the attack. The Crusaders had an identical number of kills and errors in the final set.
Acevedo and Wiseman were Barton’s representatives on the all-tournament team.
“We focused on each game separately, and we had a game plan,” Bane said of the Lady Bulldogs’ tournament run. “We really stuck to that, and that’s why we pulled out each set.”
While another Conference Carolinas tournament title was pleasing to Barton, the focus immediately shifted to the business at hand in the coming regional round.
“I think our girls are ready,” Lennox said. “This was something that they were really, really excited about. But as soon as we ended they were like, ‘Hey, we’re ready for the NCAA tournament.’
“I think they’re excited and are going to be ready to go.