College Sports

Toepke's serve crucial to Eagles' success

Winthrop's Tara Toepke has one of the nation's top serves.
Winthrop's Tara Toepke has one of the nation's top serves.

When it comes to serving, Winthrop senior Tara Toepke has become the team's ace.

Toepke ranks seventh -- she has been as high as fifth -- nationally in serving aces with 75 of her team's Big South Conference-leading 211. Five teammates have 25 or more, with Kelsey Hall's 29 leading that group.

Building on those numbers could be crucial for the five-time defending Big South volleyball champions, who open postseason play this afternoon at 2 against No. 7 Charleston at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

Winthrop and Liberty finished the season tied for the top spot with 11-1 records. The Lady Flames got the top seed and first-round bye by virtue of a 3-0 win over Winthrop, a victory that ended the Eagles' streak of consecutive conference victories at 63.

Serving is something first-year coach Sally Polhamus stresses.

"It's your first attack," she said. "Volleyball is much like a chess match and how that first ball influences the rest of the point.

"The idea is to put (the opponent) out of position at the beginning of each point and Tara is so great at that."

The roots of how Toepke developed such a strong serve go back to middle school and an injury that put her on the shelf for quite a while.

"I sprained my ankle and the only thing I could do for a long time was sit in a chair and hit serves to my teammates," Toepke said. "I'd just sit there and just flail away at it.

"Serving like that helped me develop upper body strength. I just kept working on it."

Between middle school and college, Toepke was able to develop a serve that's not "normal."

"Most servers hit a ball that drops, but I hit a little more on the side of the ball and it curves," Toepke said. "It still drops a little, but I think the curve kind of throws them off."

Serving isn't the only aspect of the game in which Toepke, a volleyball, basketball and softball standout in high school, excels.

"She's one of our better serve receivers, she's an excellent passer and a great blocker," Polhamus said. "She does all the little things you need, and that's because she always works on the little things."

"I really enjoy defense," Toepke said. "It's so cool when an opponent slams the ball right at you and you're able to keep it in play with a good pass and then go on to win the point."

Before transferring to Winthrop, the Metamora, Ill., native played two years at Illinois Central College, where she was a two-time junior college All-American. She also played on the school's junior college national champion basketball team.

Polhamus knows what it's going to take to win a sixth straight title.

"We've really been stressing discipline the last few weeks," she said. "And that means staying in our systems and always being in the right place at the right time.

"If one person isn't in sync on each point, then you're going to have problems."

Volleyball pairings

All matches at the Vines Center, Lynchburg, Va.

(All matches available on streaming video)

Thursday

Match 1 -- No. 2 Winthrop vs. No. 6 Charleston Southern, 2 p.m.

Match 2 -- No. 3 High Point vs. No. 6 UNC Asheville, 4:30 p.m.

Match 3 -- No. 4 Coastal Carolina vs. No. 5 Radford, 7 p.m.

Note: No. 1 seed Liberty gets first-round bye

Friday

Match 4 -- No. 1 Liberty vs. Winner Match 3, 7 p.m.

Match 5 -- Winner Match 1 vs. Winner Match 2, 4:30 p.m.

Saturday

Championship -- Winner Match 4 vs. Winner Match 5, 4 p.m.

• SOCCER PAIRINGS: Winthrop's third-seeded men's soccer team will open the Big South Conference tournament against No. 7 High Point at 7 p.m. Thursday.

The Eagles, the defending tournament champions, are hosting the three-day tournament that features three matches on Thursday, the semifinals Friday and the championship on Sunday afternoon.

Coastal Carolina is the No. 1 seed and earned a first-day bye. The tournament champion gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Soccer pairings

All matches at Eagle Field

(All matches available on streaming video)

Thursday

Match 1 -- No. 4 Radford vs. No. 5 VMI, 1 p.m.

Match 2 -- No. 2 Liberty vs. No. 7 UNC Asheville, 4 p.m.

Match 3 -- No. 3 Winthrop vs. No. 6 High Point, 7 p.m.

Note: No. 1 seed Coastal Carolina gets first-round bye

Friday

Match 4 -- No. 1 Coastal Carolina vs. winner of Match 1, 4 p.m.

Match 5 -- Winner Match 2 vs. Winner Match 3, 7 p.m.

Sunday

Championship -- Winner Match 4 vs. Winner Match 5, 2 p.m.

• GOLF COURSE SCHEDULE: Because of this week's soccer tournament, the Winthrop Golf Course will be closed all day Thursday and Sunday.

The course will be open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday and all day Saturday. Regular operating hours will resume Monday morning at 8.

• FAST START: Wins over North Texas on Friday and Navy on Saturday marked the first time the women's basketball team had started 2-0 since the 1983-84 season.

The Lady Eagles beat Limestone and Delaware State to start the '83-'84 campaign.

Had Winthrop defeated Rice on Sunday it would have been the first 3-0 start since the Lady Eagles downed Baptist, Presbyterian and Coastal Carolina to begin the 1978-'79 season.

The 33 points allowed to Navy tied the lowest point total allowed since the Lady Eagles became an NCAA Division I team. The Lady Eagles also held Maryland Baltimore County to 33 points in 1994.

The Winthrop record for fewest points allowed was 21 against Palmer College in 1972.

Junior Tiffany Rodd was named the Big South Conference Choice Hotels Co-Player of the Week after her efforts in the Eagles' opening weekend.

UPCOMING EVENTS

TODAY

At S.C. State, women's basketball, 5:30 p.m.

THURSDAY

Charleston Southern, Big South Conference Volleyball Tournament, Lynchburg, Va., 2 p.m., video streaming

High Point, Big South Conference Men's Soccer Tournament, Rock Hill, 7 p.m., video streaming

FRIDAY

Big South Conference Men's Soccer Tournament, semifinals, Rock Hill, 7 p.m., video streaming

At Illinois Chicago, men's basketball, Paradise Jam, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, 4:30 p.m.

Big South Conference Volleyball Tournament, Lynchburg, Va., 7 p.m., video streaming

SATURDAY

Men's basketball, Paradise Jam, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, TBA

Big South Conference Volleyball Tournament, Lynchburg, Va., 4:30 p.m., video streaming

SUNDAY

Big South Conference Men's Soccer Tournament, Rock Hill, finals, 2 p.m., video streaming

Men's basketball, Paradise Jam, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, TBA

At Tulane, women's basketball, 3 p.m.

MONDAY

Men's basketball, Paradise Jam, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, TBA

TUESDAY

Men's basketball, Paradise Jam, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, TBA

• NOTE: To access streaming video go to bigsouthsports.com, click on THE EDGE and follow instructions.

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