Nov. 15, 2012
Patriot League Championship Central
HAMILTON, N.Y. - The Army volleyball team heads to Central New York to begin its quest for the 2012 Patriot League Championship this weekend. The third-seeded Black Knights face No. 2 American in Saturday's second semifinal match at 6 p.m. The entire Patriot League Tournament, to include Sunday's championship, will be played at regular-season champion Colgate's Cotterell Court.
While Army takes on defending champion American on Saturday, the host Raiders welcome No. 4 Lehigh for a 3 p.m. match. The winners will face-off Sunday at 3 p.m. with the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
"The Patriot League has been so unpredictable this season that it should make for a great tournament," said sixth-year head coach Alma Kovaci. "All four teams are capable of winning on any given night. I know all four teams want it, but the winner will be the team that remains calm under pressure and shows the ability to win those long rallies."
Army and American split the regular-season series and both enter this weekend with 20 wins on the season. The teams tied for second place in the regular-season standings with identical 11-3 marks, but the Eagles won the higher seed based on a 3-0 win over the Black Knights at Gillis Field House. Army's win at American came by a 3-2 score in its Patriot League opener on Sept. 21.
The American-Army match is the first time two 20-match winners are squaring off in the semifinals since 2007 (No. 1 American versus No. 4 Navy) and first time in the 2-3 game of the tournament since 2005 (No. 2 Navy versus No. 3 Army).
"Practice has gone very well this week," Kovaci said. "The players have been very focused and motivated. We have been working on our defense, which will be huge for us, and making sure we're clicking on all cylinders.
"American will be very tough, but we see it as a great opportunity," she continued. "American definitely has some size and power to its advantage, but we have control and speed. We match-up well against them."
Named the Patriot League's Player of the Year earlier this week, all eyes will be on senior Ariana Mankus as Army makes its conference-record 14th consecutive tournament appearance. Mankus leads the league in kills (3.62 per set) and has recorded at least 20 kills twice over the last four matches. Second team All-Patriot League honoree Margaux Jarka brings a six-match double-digit kill streak into the weekend and complements Mankus on the outside.
Sophomore setter Mary Vaccaro, who repeated as Patriot League Setter of the Year on Monday, quarterbacks a Black Knights offense that ranks first in the league in kills and assists. Also named the 2012 Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year, Vaccaro is a first team All-Patriot League setter and averages 9.41 assists per set. She also has 15 double-doubles on the year.
While Mankus and Jarka remain two of Vaccaro's hottest targets, she can also rely on sophomore Molly McDonald and freshman Zoe Kreitenberg out of the middle. McDonald and Kreitenberg have both shown the ability to put up big numbers and are averaging 1.42 and 2.07 kills per set, respectively. The pair, along with senior Francine Vasquez, make up the bulk of Army's blocking corps.
Defensively, the Black Knights lead the Patriot League in opponent hitting percentage and rank ninth in the NCAA in digs (18.37 per set). Second team All-Patriot League honoree D.J. Phee tops the league and ranks 15th nationally in digs per set (5.63). The junior out of Allen, Texas, recently broke Army's single-season digs record and now has 557 on the year.
Army is the only team other than American to win the Patriot League title since the Eagles joined the conference in 2001. The Black Knights took the 2009 championship, but American has won the last two titles. Head coach Barry Goldberg is in his 24th season at American. His Eagles lead the league in hitting percentage, blocks and service aces.
A balanced American team features first team All-Patriot League hitter Sara Rishell's team-high 2.96 kills per set, while senior Juliana Crum averages 2.13 kills per set. Junior middle Morgan Hendrix, also an All-Patriot League first team performer, tops the conference in hitting percentage (.312) and blocks (1.31). The Eagles enter this weekend's tournament riding a five-match win streak.
Army has won four Patriot League titles with the last crown coming in 2009, the same season Mankus and Vasquez were freshmen. Both players were major contributors as the Black Knights punched their ticket to the NCAA Division I Tournament for the first time in program history.
"We are going to rely heavily on Ariana and Francine's experience this weekend," Kovaci noted. "They know what it takes to win a championship, and I would like nothing more than for them to go out with another title."
Fans can watch this weekend's entire tournament via Patriot League All-Access. Click here for more information.
Live statistics will be available by visiting the Army volleyball schedule page of www.goARMYsports.com. In addition, fans are encouraged to follow @Army_Volleyball on Twitter for periodic updates.