AUGUSTA 3, USC AIKEN 1
AUGUSTA — USC Aiken volleyball coach Glenn Cox never put together a lineup like he had to Wednesday night.
With his roster ravaged by positive COVID-19 cases and others in quarantine, Cox had seven players dressed – one of those strictly in case of emergency – for the third-seeded Pacers' Peach Belt Conference Tournament semifinal match against second-seeded Augusta.
Despite the unorthodox-yet-necessary configuration, the Pacers gave the Jaguars a scare. USCA took the first set and was points away from winning the second and third in a 25-18, 24-26, 21-25, 16-25 loss that ended their season.
"I'm super proud of the way this team came out and fought today," Cox said. "To have the lineup that we had today – we really got hit hard with COVID this past week.
"... We put two liberos out there on the front row playing middle. We had no middle (blockers) today. To come out and jump on Augusta the way we did – they're a quality team. They've had a great year. ... Our girls really rose to the occasion and played hard. They played their hearts out, and they always do. I'm looking forward to seeing what we can do in the fall."
Alie Smith had 28 kills, Kaitlyn Rodriguez had 15 kills and 18 digs, Anita Cookey-Gam had 10 kills and 16 digs, Caroline Foster had 42 assists, Kari Mercer had 26 digs, and Emily Duggan had 17 digs.
USCA (9-5) stunned Augusta early, using a 4-0 scoring run late in the first set for a commanding 23-16 lead.
The second set was evenly contested, and another 4-0 USCA run tied the score at 19 apiece. The Pacers took a 24-23 lead on a Smith kill and were a point away from a two-sets-to-none advantage, but Augusta reeled off three consecutive points to square the match.
Augusta looked to take command of the match in the third set when it surged ahead 16-7, often cashing in on its big advantage at the net, but the Pacers rallied to cut the deficit to 20-19. Augusta closed the set on a 6-2 run, though, to put itself a set from the championship match.
More big scoring runs gave Augusta the advantage in the fourth set, and the dagger was a 5-0 run that gave the Jaguars match point at 24-15.
Aiken High grad Alyssa Frazier had eight kills for Augusta, the two-time defending PBC Tournament champion, which will face top-seeded Flagler on Saturday for the title.
Cox didn't have an available sub – Abbey Schad was in uniform but, having torn her ACL in the fall, was there only if absolutely needed – so he got clever with his timeouts to try to stop some of those scoring runs, in some cases saving them for when he felt an Augusta player would return from the timeout and serve into the net.
He said the Pacers were fairly lucky to get through the season without any cancellations until the regular-season finale against Georgia College, which was called off when the Pacers didn't have a setter.
They were down three starters last Tuesday and still beat Lander, and then they were hit hard again by COVID-19.
Smith said the players were faced with a decision about whether or not to play with only six players, but she said they felt they had earned their spot in the tournament and were going to go out and have fun with it.
"The chemistry on the court tonight was, honestly, the best it's ever been," she said. "We went in there with the mindset that we actually have nothing to lose. We've already lost eight of our players. We can't lose many more. If this was our last game, then we were gonna go out with a bang. If we won, then we won, and that would've been a big upset. We played hard, so it was good."
It was chaotic at times on the floor with so many players playing out of position, and the inability to sub meant the Pacers were giving maximum effort without many breathers.
"I think there was something in the air – it was thin out there, because we were all out of breath," Smith said. "With the masks, it doesn't make anything easier. But I think everybody just honed in on, we're not gonna let anything hit the ground. I think we really did that for the most part."
Now the Pacers look toward the fall for what will hopefully be a more normal season than this delayed one. Injuries plus COVID-19 meant they weren't always able to flash the depth Cox knows they have, but everyone from this team comes back next season.
That includes Smith, a senior outside hitter who has more kills per set and points per set than anyone in NCAA Division II. She and Kayla Duggan are the only seniors on the roster, and they'll use the extra eligibility available to them to play one more season – and Cox said he expects his team to be as dangerous as ever.
"We'll be back," Smith said with a laugh.