Hail State Invitational held mixed emotions for MSU volleyball fans

Day One

The Mississippi State University women's volleyball team faced Syracuse on Friday night in Starkville, Mississippi, at the Newell-Grissom Building. The close game resulted in a win for Syracuse, but it was a hard-fought matchup.

Syracuse took the first set, although it was close throughout the set. The Orange called the first timeout of the night when the Dawgs were up 12-8, and an even closer battle followed for the remainder of the set. Defensively, both sides showed out leading up to the final score of the set, 25-23 with Syracuse on top.

Following the momentum from the first set, Syracuse pushed above the Bulldogs, pushing MSU to use both timeouts again in this set. MSU's defensive specialist, Lilly Gunter, a sophomore from Oviedo, Florida, defended her Dawgs well, but they couldn't pull ahead in time. The Orange overcame the Dawgs and remained on top for the second set in a row, taking set number two 25-18. 

The Dawgs took the first point of the third set, and maroon-clad fans were on the edges of their seats throughout Newell-Grissom. Another close set was under way, and the MSU offense started picking up momentum. Syracuse pulled their second timeout of the night when the Bulldogs gained six points during the set, putting them up 11-5. Syracuse pulled their second and final timeout of the set when the Dawgs were up 16-6. 

A brief power issue caused a break in the third set while the Dawgs were up 18-8. The spirit squad, along with fans, held up phone flashlights and swayed to the rhythm of "Don't Stop Believin'" until the players refilled the court. 

Once the third set went back into action, the Dawgs remained on top and took the set 25-12, taking Syracuse to a fourth set. 

Although Head Coach Julie Darty Dennis said she was proud of her team throughout the night, she specified how much this third set meant to her. 

"I thought they were a just tougher, grittier team in that third set. So, I think that in that third set, 25-12, clearly something was going well," Dennis said. "We just have to find ways to be that 25-12 team all the time, and not turn it on and off like a switch."

MSU started off the fourth set with a lead, but Syracuse pulled close behind them before the 10-point mark, making it another close set for the night. The Orange called their final timeout of the set as the Bulldogs pull ahead 21-20. 

As the set comes to a close, the "win by two" rule goes into play. Syracuse was leading by one, already over the 25-point mark, when the stadium erupted with a unanimous, "Boo!" There were muffled conversations between fans in the stands about a Syracuse player on the sidelines making a screeching whistle noise which caused the Bulldog players to stop and catch the ball, thinking it was a referee whistle. 

However things actually ended, Syracuse came out on top, ending the final set 28-26. Overall, Syracuse took the match 3-1 in set wins. 

Day Two

On a misty Saturday night, the Mississippi State University volleyball team fired on all cylinders securing a 3-1 victory with a rebound win over South Alabama 

The first set started off as a tightly contested match with both squads trading blows, as neither team could rack up more than a 2-point lead. With the set tied at 18-18, Mississippi State University'Lauren Myrick, a junior from Louisville, Kentucky, swatted a kill and was followed up by a South Alabama attack error to give the Bulldogs a two-point lead 20-18. MSU would go on to secure five straight points off three kills, one ace and one attack error by South Alabama, giving the Bulldogs a 25-18 first set win while boasting a .245 hitting percentage.   

The second set is where South Alabama got the best of the Bulldogs. MSU posted an abysmal -.025 hitting percentage and just couldn't get the offense rolling. The Bulldogs gave up 13 free points off attack errors and service errors, which proved to be their undoing in the second set loss of 17-25.  

The third set is where the momentum shifted back in MSU's favor with Myrick and senior Gabby Waden of Columbia, South Carolina, getting the Bulldogs on the board with back-to-back kills to start the set. South Alabama, like the Bulldogs did in set two, gave up multiple points off attack and service errors giving the Bulldogs eight free points. With the score at 21-9, MSU rattled off three straight kills to bring the squad within two points from the set win. Avery Fitzgerald, the freshman from Fort Smith, Arkansas, sounded off a kill to bring the team within one, and graduate Jessica Kemp from Fort Mill, South Carolina, brought home the 25-13 win with an emphatic kill. The squads hitting improved that set as they increased their hitting percentage to .375.  

Needing one more set win to cap off the night with a victory, Myrick got to work. The junior set a new career high boasting a double-double with 20 kills and 10 digs, collecting nine kills in the fourth set. South Alabama wasn't giving an inch and battled the Bulldogs to the very last point. Neither team could pull ahead by more than two points all the way down to the wire. With the score knotted at 22-22, Myrick spiked a kill to give the Bulldogs a one point lead. South Alabama would score a kill of their own to tie the game once more, until another clutch kill by Myrick gave the Bulldogs set point. Myrick served the ball which ended in a bad set by South Alabama, giving MSU the set win 25-23 and the 3-1 victory. Head Coach Julie Darty Dennis spoke about Myrick's career night.

"Lauren (Myrick) said it best," Head Coach Darty said, "she's just having fun. She's out there having fun, and I couldn't even have told you it was a career night for her because she was just enjoying it, and wasn't worried about a lot. She was just passing, serving, and attacking really well. I'm very proud of her for having a career night, and having another double-double. I think that Lauren is that component for our offense right now which is helping us stay balanced, and is taking a lot of pressure off our middles and our rights. Gabby (Waden) is still going to hit .355 (hitting percentage) on a night; that is still wonderful, but she doesn't have to do all the work. She doesn't have to get all the sets. Lauren is going to take a little pressure off her, and it's cool to see it come together."

Day Three

The MSU volleyball team showed up ready to play on Sunday, and finished the Hail State Invitational 2-1, bringing their total record to 9-3. Jackson State University fought to come back, but was unable to win even a single set. 

The Bulldogs blew away the first set 25-8, but then let the Tigers close in during the next two sets, which ended 25-18 and 25-20. In the second set, after 18 points back and forth, MSU buckled down and won the next 12 out of 15 points. During the third set, the Bulldogs led the whole time, trailed closely by the Tigers, but they worked hard and finished the set for a win. The Bulldogs had a total of 49 kills and five blocks and a hitting percentage of .622.

Head Coach Julie Darty Dennis spoke on the quality of play against Jackson State University.

"The team was extremely clean, nice and efficient. I thought we did a good job of managing risks today. We were really trying to compete with ourselves and be the version of ourselves that we can be. We really wanted to build some confidence and build some momentum as we closed out non-conference and head into SEC. I was super proud that I could get everyone in. I know that we are resting a couple kids today," Darty Dennis said. "Everybody else did a great job when they were called on, and I was very proud of all 16 of them that got to play today."

The Hail State Invitational was the last of the non-conference games for the team before they start conference play. The team is doing as much as they can to prepare to face the Florida Gators on Sept. 23 in Gainesville. 

"We're fired up to start conference play. The SEC, top to bottom, is the best league in the country for a reason, in my opinion. Every single time that we get to step on the floor for a conference match, you know it's going to be a battle and a dogfight, but that's what we signed up for. We played a very tough non-conference slate for a reason. Going into conference play at 9-3, I think is a feat in itself," Darty Dennis said. "This team is hungry, and they know what it's going to take to do something special. I think they're in a good place. They trust each other, and they have a good belief right now."

Several players really showed out during the match. Sophomore Shania Cromartie got 10 kills while Senior Gabby Waden and Junior Callie Minshew managed eight kills apiece. There were numerous blocks and assists, and the whole team worked together to get the ball back over the net. Freshman Yuliana Amador put on the libero jersey for the first time and played a great game with 10 digs and 8 for 8 reception attempts.

Overall, the Bulldogs played well to bring a final win to their record before they go on to Conference games. The next Bulldog home game is in Newell-Grissom against the Louisiana State University Tigers on Oct. 1 at 6 p.m. Admission is free and the gates open an hour before first serve. 

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