LEWISTON — On a night when the first-ever Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship volleyball banner was unfurled at the Gallagher Center, leave it regional rival Buffalo to steal the hosts thunder.
Despite clawing back for a dramatic win in the fourth game, the Niagara women dropped their home opener, 20-25, 25-12, 25-20, 26-28, 15-12 in a thrilling non-league contest on Wednesday, falling for the first time at home since Sept. 20 of last season.
And although the reigning MAAC champs have plenty of time to work out the kinks before conference play begins, a few signs were troubling in the loss — the team’s attack percentage was a paltry .057, experienced players made crucial errors at key times, and the Purple Eagles seemed to lack the energy of the visitors.
Junior setter Michelle James said the team, which had few expectations heading into last season but entered this year as the conference favorite, simply needs time to assume its new role.
“I think it’s just the beginning. We’re still working on our problems,” said James, who had 37 kills, eight digs and five kills, but also had a service error on the match’s final point. “We’re still working on our communication, even though we were a team last season, it’s a whole new season. It’s a great feeling that we have a couple (accomplishments), but we’re not satisfied.”
Niagara (2-2) got out of the gate strong, winning the opener by a 25-20 count as Hannah Hedrick’s kill put the game on ice.
In the second game, however, UB (3-1) came storming back behind some big hits from Abby Niekamp, a Florida State transfer, as the Bulls broke a 10-10 tie by rattling off 15 of the next 17 points.
“I’m proud of the will of our team, we came out in the second game and made a statement,” UB coach Todd Kress said. “We’ve talked a lot to Abby. She’s in a different role, she’s a captain. She wasn’t her best in West Virginia last weekend, but she bounced back and had a great night.”
The Bulls won the third game 25-20 and needed just a single point to finish off the hosts in the fourth set, but Hedrick had one of her team-high 13 kills to tie the score at 25 all. Kristen Bignell gave the Bulls the lead again, but Niagara responded and finally went on for a 28-26 win as Shannon Ryan’s hit proved the winner after a wild rally that sent players in all directions.
Niagara couldn’t maintain the momentum, though, and after the Bulls jumped out Dana Musil (game-high 16 kills) and Niekamp added big hits and the hosts never pulled even.
Hedrick led the Purple Eagles with 13 kills and had 11 digs for a second consecutive double-double while Sam Morgan pushed her double-digit dig streak to 66 matches after finishing with 19.
Still, Niagara coach Susan Clements — who was named the national coach of the year after last season’s run — gave credit to an improved UB team and admitted she’s still tinkering with her club.
“I don’t know if we didn’t perform to our expectations as much as we’re still trying to find ourselves,” she said. “We’re still trying to find the chemistry and the lineup we’re looking for. We played hard, but our passing wasn’t great tonight and our serving let up. But we fought in the end and that’s what we’re looking for.”
And as for watching that banner being unveiled?
“It was special,” Clements said. “Nothing that happens this year will ever take away from last year.”