KEENE, N.H. -- The Eastern Connecticut State University women's volleyball team earned a first-round home match in the Little East Conference tournament the hard way Saturday, winning three straight sets after two opening losses to defeat defending regular-season conference champion Keene State College on its home court for the first time in nine years, 3-2, Saturday afternoon at Spaulding Gymnasium. Eastern won by scores of 16-25, 23-25, 25-19, 25-17, 15-13.
A winner of nine of 12 matches this year at Geissler Gymnasium, fourth-seeded Eastern (18-11, 4-3 LEC) hosts fifth-seeded Keene State (17-13, 4-3 LEC) in a first-round match Tuesday at 7 p.m. The first-round home match is the second in three years for Eastern.
The Eastern victory forged a three-way tie for third place between Eastern, Keene and Western. Western earned the No. 3 seed with a 5-4 set record against Eastern and Keene, and Eastern's head-to-head win over Keene gave it the No. 4 seed and first-round host designation. The Warriors and Owls last met in the LEC playoffs in 2014, when third-seeded Eastern swept the second-seeded Owls on a neutral floor to reach the tournament championship match.
The loss was the fifth in a row for Keene, which bounced back later in the afternoon to down Maine Maritime Academy in five. Eastern followed the important win over Keene with a four-set loss to Maine Maritime, which won by scores of 25-21, 25-23, 23-25, 25-16.
Eastern improved to 4-1 in five-set matches with its fourth straight deciding-set win. In the fifth set, Eastern never trailed and scored two in a row to break the only tie and move out to a 13-11 lead. Senior Nina Zimmitti (East Hampton) served the Warriors into an early 3-0 lead before the Owls later surged back with five straight points to pull even. With the score tied at 11-all, senior Ashley Adams (Mystic) was awarded a crucial kill on a Keene blocking error and all-time senior kill leader Adrianna Mihalek (Woodbury) buried sophomore Leah Sopneski's (Deep River) set to make it 13-11.
Keene had an opportunity to tie the match but a service error moved Eastern to within point match, and with the Owls serving, Mihalek hooked up again with Sopneski to finish off the hosts.
With Eastern facing elimination following its first two losses, Mihalek had four kills and five digs, Sopneski and senior Fabiana Della-Monica (Newark, DE) five assists each, and junior libero Michelle Valliere (Lebanon) five digs to keep Eastern alive with a six-point victory in the third set. Adams and Mihalek had early kills in the set after Keene scored the first point for its only lead.
Eastern trailed only twice – by a point each time – in the early stages of the fourth set and set the early tempo by reeling off six straight to assume a 9-4 lead. Four Keene attack errors contributed in that run, with Mihalek and junior Megan Macomber (South Windsor) contributing kills.
Keene attacked at only -.024 in that critical fourth set, while Mihalek led the Warriors with five kills and no errors on 12 attempts, Valliere digging up seven balls.
Eastern, which had lost four of its last six prior to the match, got a team-high 19 kills from Mihalek and ten from Adams and senior Kay Mullen (Fairhaven, MA). Sopneski set 27 assists, Della-Monica 17, Valliere led four players in double figures with 35 digs, Zimmitti adding 19, Mihalek 14 and Sopneski 12. Macomber totaled a team-high five blocks, sophomore Jackie Orlowski (Woodstock) adding four and junior Carly Balskus (Hebron) three.
In five sets, the Warriors commited only five reception errors while Keene was guilty of 11.