The Virginia volleyball team begins its quest for its first Conference title tomorrow at the ACC Tournament in Orlando, Fla.
Although the Tournament tips off today at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex, the fourth-seeded Cavaliers will not battle fifth-seeded Duke until tomorrow's first-round opener.
In a season that began full of lofty expectations, Virginia (17-10, 9-7 ACC) stumbled to a slow start but regrouped before its ACC schedule started, finishing in the fourth spot in the nine-team Conference. The team is eager to redeem itself for its uncharacteristic losses in late September by turning in winning Tournament performances against the Blue Devils (13-13, 7-9) and later round opponents.
"I think we're really excited," outside hitter Katie Jones said. "At the beginning of the year, we set goals for ourselves, and one of them was to win the ACC Tournament. Although we have met some obstacles this year, I think we're all very confident that if we play well, we can definitely beat these teams."
Last season the Cavaliers, who won 25 matches during the regular season, advanced to the second round of the Conference Tournament before falling to eventual champion Florida State. This year, however, the Seminoles fell from their throne and finished last in the ACC. Clemson, seeded first in the tournament and ranked No. 13 nationally, replaced Florida State atop the Conference by dropping only one regular season match.
Along with the Tigers, second-seeded North Carolina also has received national attention, leaving the Cavaliers as a widely overlooked squad coming into the Tournament. The competitive nature of the ACC, though, gives every team - Virginia included - hope of going home with the Conference trophy.
"I think it's going to be a tough road no matter where you're seeded," setter Mary Frances Scott said. "With the ACC the way it is, you have to take every game seriously. It doesn't matter who's beaten who before. It matters who wins then."
Scott, one of the team's trio of fourth-year stars, has been a powerful stabilizing force for the Cavs all season long. The Phoenix native led the team in assists with 1,315, making her the first Virginia player to register over 1,000 assists in four consecutive seasons.
Scott's individual accomplishments include the Virginia record for all-time assists and last week's Co-ACC Volleyball Player of the Week award. Yet she and her fellow fourth years, middle blocker Jessica Parsons and outside hitter Whitney Bilger, have not savored the thrill of being crowned Conference champions.
"This will be different because it is my last ACC Tournament," Scott said. "We want to do as well as we can."
Virginia faces a formidable test in its first-round match with Duke tomorrow at 2 p.m. The Blue Devils came to U-Hall Oct. 23 and lost to the Cavs in straight games, but since that defeat they have won seven of their 11 matches to finish fifth in the Conference.
"We haven't seen them since the middle of October," Virginia Coach Melissa Aldrich Shelton said. "They've been playing well since we last saw them. Each time we've played them, it's been close. It's not like we blew them out. I hope the girls aren't taking this game for granted. Four versus five is supposed to be a tough match; it's supposed to be the closest one in the Tournament."
If the Cavaliers can withstand the surging Devils, they will most likely meet Clemson in a second-round match. The Tigers are expected to have an easy time against the ninth-seeded Seminoles before moving on to play the winner of the Duke-Virginia game. Although the team has lost both matches to Clemson in straight games, the Cavs believe the ACC Tournament will end differently.
"We've played them close," Scott said. "At the game we played down in Clemson, it was a tough game. There were a lot of side-outs and there weren't a lot of points, there were strings of points. It was a back and forth match. I think we're the same caliber team as they are."