RALEIGH, N.C. — Averett volleyball rattled off 13 consecutive points in the fifth set to beat top-seeded William Peace University 3-2 for the 2020-21 USA South Conference East Division championship Saturday.
Averett (13-6) won the first two sets 25-22 and 25-23 to go up 2-0 in the match before William Peace (14-2) bounced back to win the next two 25-19 and 25-18 and force the deciding fifth set for the title. The Pacers, poised to pull off the comeback, opened the fifth set with a 4-2 advantage. The Cougars had other plans.
Averett put together one of its most impressive runs when it needed it most. Junior Zamyiah Mangum’s kill made it 4-3 William Peace and gave the Cougars the serve. With freshman Erin Gray serving, Averett went in front 5-4, leading William Peace to call timeout. It didn’t slow down the Cougars, who won the next four points to make it 9-4 and forced the Pacers to burn their last timeout.
That didn’t work either. Averett got kills from junior Sarah Shropshire and sophomore Morgan Barnes while taking advantage of several Pacer errors to give the Cougars match point. Gray finished it off with an ace to seal the program’s 19th conference championship of some kind as the Cougars rushed the court to celebrate.
Senior McKenzie Miller’s first thoughts in the immediate chaos were, “Oh, my gosh, we did it!” It had been a long time coming for the Cougars, who have won numerous regular-season crowns but hadn’t won a conference tournament title since 2006 despite several near misses.
“I’ve been in this place two times in my career, and we haven’t been able to get it done,” she said. “We finally won the tournament. I’m just very grateful to be a part of such an amazing team. I’m super grateful to have spent the past four years with these girls.”
The Cougars celebrated the end of their season with the trophy and lots of photos. Because the NCAA canceled the Division III national tournament after the normal fall season was postponed to spring, Saturday’s East Division championship match was as far as Averett could go, win or lose.
“This year could be one of my most satisfying of my career,” said head coach Danny Miller, who has won more than 600 career matches in 26 years as head coach at Averett. “With all of the adversity and restrictions, I’m just so impressed with the resiliency of the team. I’m so happy for the team that we even got to experience this season.”
Averett opened the match fired up against William Peace, which hadn’t lost since its season-opening loss to the Cougars on the same court back on March 4. The Cougars took a 5-0 lead in the first set, which eventually grew to a 13-3 advantage. Although the Pacers pieced together a run to get within 16-12, Averett held on for the 25-22 win to go up 1-0 in the match.
The Cougars also jumped up early in Set 2 and led 15-10. The Pacers again made a late push only to fall short 25-23, and Averett took a commanding 2-0 lead.
Averett looked to close out the Pacers in three sets after going in front 7-3 early. Yet William Peace used a six-point run to take the lead. The Cougars got back within one at 18-17 only to have the Pacers pull away 25-19 to stay alive. The fourth set was similar, as Averett led 10-7 until William Peace stole the momentum and won seven of the last eight points of the frame to force the deciding fifth set for the championship.
Miller finished off her playing career with a double-double of 45 assists and 17 digs. Mangum also had a double-double of 17 kills and 13 digs, and Shropshire tallied double-digit kills with 13 to go along with eight digs. Gray, who had a team-high three service aces, also led the team with 18 digs. Junior Lauren Montren added eight kills and 13 digs, Barnes tallied nine kills and three blocks, and freshman Emma Nash finished with six kills and three blocks.
Wilson is the director of athletics communications for Averett University.