Behind the leadership of its seniors, the East Carolina University volleyball team is set to take on the defending American Athletic Conference champions, Southern Methodist University, and will look to prove preseason voters wrong with an early-statement victory.
ECU will face SMU at home on Friday night for its third AAC game of the season. After playing two mid-level teams in the conference, the Pirates will get their first taste of a top AAC opponent, as the Mustangs were ranked fourth in the AAC preseason polls. The Pirates, who were ranked 11th out of 12 teams in the conference, have already upset the preseason ranked sixth best team, the University of South Florida.
SMU went 26-8 (18-2 AAC), last season en route to the 2016 AAC Championship. The program is well on its way to remaining atop the conference, standing at 2-0 in the AAC already, after defeating Tulane in four sets and sweeping Houston in three. The Pirates will have their hands full trying to stop senior outside hitter Lauren Mills, who currently leads the Mustangs in kills (scoring plays) with 187.
The Pirates will look for seniors Natalie Montini and Ashton Mares to continue their strong play against conference opponents, as they each had 17 kills to help lead their team to a 3-1 victory over USF on the road. Mares’ 17 kills were alongside 14 digs, earning her her third double-double of the season.
The experience of both Montini and Mares, as well as from seniors Alex Jessett and Lael Ceriani, give the Pirates added motivation heading into such an important game. An early victory over the defending AAC champions would give the entire team confidence heading into a grueling AAC schedule that features no easy matchups.
“They (the seniors) are motivated to win,” ECU head coach Julie Torbett said. “They haven’t beat SMU since they’ve been here, so that’s their final chance, twice we get to play them. So I know they want to get a win off of them, either here on Friday, or at their place later in the year. Those seniors, they get those two chances and that’s it.”
While the Pirates have not defeated the Mustangs in the past four seasons, they did play SMU well last season, taking a set against them in their matchup on the road. Torbett said her team is not going to back down from the challenge in front of them.
“We played well against them last year, so I think we are not afraid of them by any means,” Torbett said. “We are excited to get the opportunity to play them on Friday.”
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