The Tennessee State volleyball team, picked last in the Ohio Valley Conference preseason, is the last team standing heading into the NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers (19-15, 10-8) won the OVC tournament and earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007.
The 64-team NCAA Tournament bracket will be announced Sunday at 6:30 p.m. during the selection show on ESPNU. First- and second-round games will be Dec. 1-2 or 2-3.
Coach Donika Sutton used the low expectations for her team as motivation throughout the season.
“Honestly, it feels great because I used (the preseason prediction) as fuel for the team,” Sutton told WNSR 560-AM/95.9-FM. “Whenever we were hitting a down moment or weren’t producing, I just kind of reminded them of where everybody thinks we should be as opposed to who we are as a team. I feel like it definitely worked to our advantage and we were able to shock a lot of people.”
TSU finished tied for third in the regular season with Morehead State, Eastern Illinois and Southeast Missouri but headed into the conference tournament with greater momentum than any team in the league by winning its last four games and seven of the last eight.
The Tigers then advanced to the conference tournament championship where they knocked off Southeast Missouri in five sets (25-21, 16-25, 22-25, 25-22, 15-10).
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TSU graduate student Gina-Rivera Ortiz was the conference tournament most valuable player. Freshman Gabrielle Johnson also made the all-conference team and was a key reason the Tigers were able to catch so many teams by surprise this season.
“Gabrielle is a 6-foot-2 middle who came in and I tell you this kid has really blossomed beyond my expectations for her for this first year,” Sutton said. “She’s very long, very limber; she’s just everywhere defensively. And then offensively she showed up in so many different matches for us and most people didn’t have her on their scouting report so that’s been really big for us.”
Johnson, who is from Houston and transferred from Stephen F. Austin, led the OVC in in blocks with 91.
A couple of other newcomers the opposition didn’t count on were Johanna Alcantara, a 6-1 senior who transferred from Lindsey-Wilson and set the program’s single season kills record with 501, and Kennedy Davis, a 6-2 junior who transferred from Western Illinois and had more than 100 blocks including 10 in the conference tournament championship.
Alcantara was the OVC newcomer of the year and Davis made the all-conference tournament team.
While TSU’s success may have surprised some, it didn’t surprise Sutton.
“I knew we could do something before the season started when I realized just how excited the girls were in the summer when they came to me and said, ‘Coach, this team is so good.'” Sutton said. “Then when we played Stanford at TSU Aug. 27 and the game was competitive and in that moment I knew that if we could play with Stanford, which at that time was ranked 14th, then we had a really good chance this season at really making some noise.”
Reach Mike Organ at 615-259-8021 or on Twitter @MikeOrganWriter.