By Jonah Bronstein
NIAGARA FALLS —
They made it look easy, even though the task was harder.
The Niagara women’s volleyball team defeated Iona in straight sets Saturday to claim its second straight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship and qualify for a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
Last year, a Purple Eagles team with no seniors snuck up on the rest of the league and won a four-team playoff at nearby Canisius in which they had somewhat of a home-court advantage.
This time, Niagara entered a 10-team tournament with a big purple target on its back, having been installed as preseason favorites, then going 17-1 in regular season play. It had to defeat two of the MAAC’s traditional powers, Siena and Fairfield, on a neutral court at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., just to get to the championship game.
“It was much harder this year,” coach Susan Clements said in a phone interview after the championship match. “Coming in and having to play that extra match, traveling to Disney and all those distractions, getting in really late on Tuesday. We tried to keep the girls as focused as we could.
“... The other teams were ready to go. They knew if they beat us, the field would be wide open. The first two matches, in the quarters and semis, we had some nerves. We were a little shaky because we had to face two teams that have dominated the conference. That little fear that we may not make it to the championship game was there.”
Niagara lost its opening set and trailed at the start of the semifinals against Siena, which was the one team it had the most trouble with during the regular season. The Fairfield match wasn’t as close, but Niagara did lose one of the sets.
On Saturday, the Purple Eagles won their 19th match in row by rallying at the end of the first set to win 25-19 and controlling the second and third sets, 25-14 and 25-18.
“We all came together, we all stepped up our game and we really dug in when we need to,” said outside hitter Hannah Hedrick, who had 18 kills, including the third-set winner, and 11 digs and was named player of the game.
Michelle James also had a double-double with 34 assists and 11 digs. Kari Honomichl had seven kills, while Ellen Senf and Kathy Bibler each had six. Sam Morgan had 22 digs, extending her streak of double-digit dig games to 95.
“Our team is committed and determined and they’re very tough,” Clements said. “They fight hard. Every time we’d beat them down, they’d respond. It shows that they want to be champions.”
James was named MAAC Setter of the Year for the second straight season. She led the conference with 10.11 assists per set, over half an assist more than the next closest player.
“Michelle is such a delight,” Clements said. “She works hard. She takes a lot of the heat when things aren’t going well. This year we really worked on her mental ability to read the block and she really elevated that part of her game.”
Hedrick and middle hitter Amanda Wilken joined James on the all-MAAC first team. Hedrick was fifth in the conference with 3.02 kills per set. Wilken was third in the MACC in hitting percentage at .289.
“Hannah was steady for us all weekend. When we were shakey, she was calm. She just does it all. She’s an all-around athlete,” Clements said. “Amanda brought a real presence to our front line this year. She worked hard in the weight room. She was an offensive weapon.”
Ellen Senf was named MAAC Rookie of the Year after posing a .316 hitting percentage in league matches. She also averaged 2.17 kills per set and compiled 46 blocks.