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Stony Brook women’s volleyball rallies twice to sweep N.C. A&T

Outside hitter Leoni Kunz leaps to attempt an attack against North Carolina A&T on Saturday, Sept. 30. Kunz led the Stony Brook women’s volleyball team with 38 points over the weekend. TIM GIORLANDO/THE STATESMAN

Despite slow starts to both ends of the weekend, the Stony Brook women’s volleyball team cleaned up its act to earn its first series sweep of the year.

The Seawolves (7-9, 3-3 CAA) went the full length against the North Carolina A&T (N.C. A&T) Aggies (4-10, 2-4 CAA) this weekend at Pritchard Gymnasium, pulling off a pair of comeback wins to get back to .500 in conference play. Stony Brook fell behind 2-1 on Saturday before winning the final two sets en route to a 3-2 victory, and then reverse swept N.C. A&T on Sunday to win 3-2 again.

Both sides exchanged blows to open Saturday’s match. A pair of kills from N.C. A&T outside hitters Naiya Sawtelle and Kaili Doctor put Stony Brook in an early 8-4 hole. The Seawolves answered with an 11-2 stretch of their own, carried by outside hitter Kali Moore’s three kills and two service aces. Setter Torri Henry chipped in with a pair of aces. This lead was short lived, as the Aggies rattled off an 8-3 run to tie the game, leaning heavily on middle blocker Maya Johnson and several Seawolf errors.

After reaching an 18-18 tie, Stony Brook grabbed a 21-20 lead. However, kills by Sawtelle bookended a 5-1 run to hand the Seawolves a 25-22 loss.

Heading into the second set, head coach Kristin Belzung stressed the importance of the team’s defense if it wanted a chance at victory.

“We set some pretty specific defensive goals and we didn’t meet those goals,” Belzung said in a postgame interview with The Statesman. “We tried to focus on the process and step up some things defensively to give us some comfort.”

The Seawolves’ struggles carried over to the second set, allowing a 7-1 run by N.C. A&T to grab an 11-9 lead. After a service error by the Aggies, outside hitter Leoni Kunz delivered multiple kills to spearhead a 12-4 run, putting Stony Brook up 21-15. Both sides exchanged scores until Henry recorded the game-winning kill to lock down the 25-18 win.

The third set was another nail-biter. A kill from pin hitter Ava Jackson tied the game at 17, but the Seawolves failed to build on that. Led by three kills from Doctor, the Aggies rode an 8-3 run to finish them off 25-20.

Both teams fought hard at the start of the fourth set, leading to a 10-10 deadlock. Looking to extend the match to a fifth set, Stony Brook took off on a 10-5 run powered by two kills from middle blocker Abby Campbell, Jackson and Kunz. The scoring surge put the Seawolves in a prime position to take the set. A 6-3 run by N.C. A&T made things interesting, but kills by Campbell and middle blocker Ayanna Pierre Louis secured the 25-22 victory to stay alive.

The final set began with the Aggies taking an 8-6 lead on a kill from libero Valerie Estrada and a block assist by Johnson and setter Chiara Napoli. After that, N.C. A&T head coach Hal Clifton called a timeout to talk things over. The stoppage in play proved to benefit Stony Brook more, as it unleashed an 8-1 stretch, mainly spurred by five attack errors from the Aggies and two kills by Moore. A brief Aggies comeback attempt proved to be too little, too late, as another kill by Moore proved to be the dagger, clinching the 15-12 set win to take the match.

Belzung said her team was able to pull off the comeback by getting N.C. A&T out of its comfort zone.

“Especially against A&T, it’s a serving game,” Belzung said. “When we get the opportunity to play some defense and put them out of system from a serving standpoint, that gives us a better opportunity.”

As for Moore, she said her mindset changed as the match got closer towards the end.

“I love to finish things,” Moore said. “When it gets down to the wire, I think I thrive. Our whole entire team was ready to get this win, and that’s all we wanted.”

The Seawolves came out sluggish in the opening set on Sunday, committing 10 attack errors. The Aggies rode an early 7-1 stretch to go up 13-6. With how flat Stony Brook’s offense came out, that hole was too deep to dig out of. N.C. A&T outscored the Seawolves 12-9 for the rest of the game to put the finishing touches on a 25-15 domination.

The second set of the day followed the same theme. After Stony Brook staked itself to an early 7-4 lead, it surrendered an 11-5 run to the Aggies, committing five attack errors during the stretch. The Seawolves stayed within striking distance over the next couple of serves, as a kill by Kunz cut the score to 20-18. However, N.C. A&T wrapped up the set with a 5-0 burst, once again relying on kills from Sawtelle, Doctor and outside hitter Hannah Howell.

Belzung attributed her team’s slow start to the Aggies utilizing a different strategy on defense.

“The first two sets, A&T came out with a totally different defensive game plan, and they executed it really well.” Belzung said. “I didn’t think that we adjusted fast enough to be able to earn our points.”

N.C. A&T continued to dominate in the third set, as it jumped out to a 14-7 lead on the backs five kills by Sawtelle and nine attack errors by Stony Brook. After Belzung called a timeout, her team embarked on a 12-2 rampage which saw the emergence of outside hitter Abby Stanwood, who contributed four kills on the run. After Kunz, Moore and Campbell delivered kills to set up match point, Stanwood once again registered a kill — her fifth of the set — to win the set and prolong the match.

Stanwood was able to help turn things around off the energy provided by her teammates.

“I think A&T had a lot of energy, and that’s what was hard for us in the beginning,” Stanwood said. “For me to be able to look at my teammates, and for them to have so much confidence in me … I think that gave me so much confidence. I just ripped away, and it was really fun.”

After the late comeback in the middle set, the Seawolves jumped out to a big lead in the fourth round with an 11-6 set opening run. However, errors once again hurt them, as five miscues aided a 9-0 run by the Aggies, giving them a 15-11 lead. N.C. A&T held that advantage and eventually reached match point, leading 24-20.

With their backs against the wall, the Seawolves went to work and forced an attack error before Campbell recorded consecutive kills. Another attack error — this one by Sawtelle — tied the set at 24 apiece. After that, Moore rattled off back-to-back kills to seal the 26-24 win and even the match at 2-2.

Once Stony Brook got to the final set, the match was over. Three kills by Stanwood and a trio of aces by Henry guided the Seawolves on an 11-0 run to start the fifth set. They walked to the easy victory to complete the comeback, and Moore sealed it with the match-winning kill.

After losing several close sets and matches throughout the first month of the season, Campbell believes these two come-from-behind victories will help the team later in the year.

“For us being down 2-0 and coming back and getting a reverse sweep was big,” Campbell said. “It definitely gave us a lot of confidence and I think it will give us a lot of confidence moving forward when we’re in tough situations.”

Attack errors were a major issue again for Stony Brook, as its 60 attack errors limited it to just a .203 hitting percentage as a team. Conversely, the Aggies netted a .236 hitting percentage by committing just 34 attack errors.

Kunz led the Seawolves’ offense in the series with 38 points on a .212 hitting percentage. She recorded double-doubles in both kills and points in both matches. She has now recorded a double-double of that kind in three consecutive matches. Moore had an up-and-down weekend, scoring 37 points but only posting a .134 hitting percentage. She also recorded a double-double on Saturday, giving her five on the year.

Campbell was efficient, scoring 24.5 points during the series on a .405 hitting percentage. Jackson scored 14 points on Saturday, while Stanwood scored 14 on Sunday.

Henry recorded a double-double in both matches in the assists and digs columns. She totaled 118 assists and 26 digs and aced six of her serves.

Stony Brook’s defense was stronger, as it recorded significantly more digs (156) than N.C. A&T did (132). As she has all season long, libero Julia Patsos led the charge with 43 total digs over the weekend. Kunz trailed her with 30 digs, while Henry contributed another 26. Moore was fourth on the team with 25.

At the net, the Seawolves were very inactive. They blocked only seven attacks from the Aggies, recording just one block solo and 12 block assists. Louis led them with five total blocks (one solo and four assists). As for N.C. A&T, it blocked 29 of Stony Brook’s attacks with five unassisted blocks and 48 shared blocks.

Stony Brook will now get a reprieve from conference play and officially wrap up its nonconference season this Wednesday at the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights in New Jersey. Opening set is scheduled for 6 p.m. The Knights are 4-14 overall this season and are coming off a 3-0 win over Le Moyne on Saturday.

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