SVC volleyball set for NCAA tournament Friday

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BENNINGTON — The Southern Vermont College women's volleyball team is set for its first Division III NCAA tournament appearance since 2013.

SVC, at 21-6, begins its tournament with an opening round matchup against Ithaca, the host school for the Mountaineers' region of the bracket.

SVC qualified after winning the New England Collegiate Conference tournament, finishing it off with a pair of upset wins against No. 2 Elms in the semifinal and No. 1 Eastern Nazarene in the final.

Mountaineers coach Pat Robidoux is in his second year at the helm, leading them to a 9-19 record in his first season coaching, before the massive jump in wins this year.

From the moment the Mountaineers stepped on the floor this year, Robidoux knew this year's group was special.

"We knew this team was special during the preseason when we played this drill called 1-2-1. The drill took us about a hour and a half to complete and the team that won reacted like they just won the conference championship and the team that lost responded like they had just lost the conference championship," Robidoux said. "We knew that this group was going to be so competitive and really do something special this year. That's why when we were the No. 3 seed [in the conference tournament], we really weren't intimidated. We knew we were still able to get business done."

SVC had plenty of talented girls up and down its roster, just as one would expect from a tournament team, but it is a pair of seniors who have really stood out for he Mountaineers.

Outside hitter Liv Sowles, who was named the NECC player of the year leads the Mountaineers with 384 kills and defensive specialist Heidy Benitez, the defensive player of the year in the NECC, led with 566 digs.

Robidoux has a long history with Sowles and Benitez, having recruited them when he was helping start the women's volleyball program at Fisher College in Boston.

When Robidoux was hired at SVC, the two followed along to play their final two collegiate seasons in Bennington.

Making the NCAA tournament alongside those two players is special for Robidoux.

"All we talked about since the moment they stepped on campus last year, was this moment and winning a championship," Robidoux said. "The three of us came here together with the same plan and the same mindset. There's a really cool picture that our SID got of us hugging and knowing we had gotten the job done. It was amazing thing that the three of us were determined to do this together."

Both seniors came up huge in the NECC tournament. Benitez had 78 digs and Sowles had 40 kills over the final two games of the conference tournament.

"It was phenomenal volleyball when we needed them the most," Robidoux said. "That's just seniors doing what they have to do to lead teams to success deep in the playoffs."

Junior Sarah Baty has been the Mountaineers' main setter with 511 assists on the season. Meg Maddalena and Nikki Ramirez both have more than 100 kills, while seven SVC players have racked up 100 or more digs.

The Bombers, who are 18-7, pose a tough challenge, especially with Friday's match coming on their home court. Reagan Stone is Ithaca's main threat for kills with 411 for the season. Katie Evans has 222 kills, while Alison Lipton and Taylor McCarthy are strong at racking up points as well.

Caitlyn Floyd is the Bombers' main setter with 1,007 on the year. Benitez's counterpart as a defensive specialist is Tara Stilwell, who has 435 digs.

Robidoux knows the challenge his team is in for against Ithaca, but is confident in his team to compete.

"Ithaca is very talented and one of the best teams in the country. They've played a lot of the top teams in the country," Robidoux said. "They are quite tall with a 6-foot-3 right-side hitter and 6-foot-4 middle blocker and their outsides are tall. They hit with a lot of power. They'll be the best team we've faced all season and they're a test these girls want to have. Our program goal is to play at this level every year and get to this point in the season."

The first-round match is set for an 8 p.m. start at Ithaca Friday night.

Adam Aucoin can be reached at aaucoin@benningtonbanner.com and followed at @AAucoin_Banner on Twitter.


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