Being a fifth-year senior, middle hitter Shannon Sitzmann has seen just about everything the game of volleyball can serve up. She is the lone senior for Winthrop this year as it heads into the Big South Conference tournament this weekend in Asheville, N.C. Winthrop, the No. 5 seed, plays at 7:30 p.m. against No. 4 UNC Asheville.
"This will be an evenly matched competition," coach Sally Polhamus said. "The match will be decided on who makes the least unforced errors. Serving errors will also make a huge impact on the match. For us, our preparation is focusing on our fundamentals; passing, scrappy defense and playing as a team."
The Eagles and Bulldogs have split two five-set matches this season with each team winning at home.
Winthrop defeated Asheville on Oct. 4 at the Winthrop Coliseum. Kelley Taylor and Kaley Viola led the way with 24 and 23 kills respectively. Kelsey Benorden had 26 kills and Raquel Miotto had 27 digs for Asheville, but Winthrop won 25-22, 25-27, 25-18, 23-25, 15-11.
The Bulldogs evened the season series on Nov. 1 at the Justice Center. Cindi Miller recorded a season-high 20 kills and Benorden recorded her 13th double-double of the season to lead UNC Asheville to 25-23, 19-25, 21-25, 25-22, 15-11 win. Winthrop was led by Sitzmann with 20 kills, 20 digs, and three blocks. Viola had 13 kills and 20 digs and Taylor added 14 kills and four blocks for the Eagles.
"This year, the home team has truly had the advantage throughout the conference season," Polhamus said. "In the end, it will be the team that wants it more that will earn the victory."
The Eagles finished 7-9 in the conference and 11-18 overall. UNC Asheville was 8-8 in BSC play and 16-13 overall.
The winner, in all likelihood, gets No.1 Liberty on Saturday.
"We are not overlooking anybody. I feel like we are ready and confident," Sitzmann said. "We can beat them. We've been practicing all week and implementing things into our gameplan specifically for Asheville."
Polhamus tested her team with a brutal early-season, non-conference schedule. The team had matches against Wake Forest, Clemson, South Carolina, North Carolina, Minnesota and Texas Christian crammed into a 21-day span.
The Eagles opened up the conference schedule with a surprising loss at Gardner-Webb. They evened their record at 1-1 with a win at home against Presbyterian but lost sophomore outside hitter Kellie Sellers to a season-ending knee injury in the process.
Polhamus and the coaching staff tried several different lineups after Sellers went down. The team responded well going 5-5 over the next 10 matches. But the Eagles slowed to finish the season 2-4 in their final six conference matches
Sitzmann remains optimistic.
"It has been a really good season for us. We've had our ups and downs, but we are working really hard to peak at the right time. We are playing better than we have all season," she said.
The team has recovered from the loss of Sellers and the lineups are pretty set according to Sitzmann.
"She (Sellers) is a great player and very strong outside. Losing her made other players adjust to new roles."
Winthrop will need a team effort against Asheville to advance. Taylor and Viola have turned in some season-bests against the Bulldogs. Winthrop's Janice Rivera and Asheville's Miotto are two of the Big South's best at libero.
Sitzmann can surpass former teammate Tori Grafeman into second place on the school's career kills list tonight. She needs eight kills to get it done.
"I really don't pay attention to stats," she said. "It is a nice accomplishment to reach, but the bottom line is I don't care if I get the kills this weekend as long as we win."
• HONORS -- Sitzmann was named First Team All-Conference for the fourth time in her career. She was also named to the All-Academic Team. The senior middle hitter is majoring in Business Marketing. She was the 2007 Big South Player of the Year.
Junior rightside hitter Taylor made Second Team All-Conference. Rivera was named to the All-Freshman Team.