It seems like the stars aligned for two Baltimore-area volleyball title teams, with both Towson and UMBC landing in Pittsburgh for the first round of the NCAA Tournament beginning Dec. 2.
Three-peat Colonial Athletic Association champion Towson (26-4) will play 15th-ranked Penn State there and back-to-back America East champ UMBC (19-11) gets third seed Pittsburgh, with both games on Friday, Dec. 3.
Tigers setter Megan Wilson knows something about cosmic forces. An astrophysics grad transfer from Virginia originally from Brookeville and Sherwood High School, Wilson landed at Towson this year and added to the winning atmosphere with her experience and ability to launch the offense as a setter.
“Her demeanor and calming force, whether it’s holistically or in the locker room or in film, her confidence transitions throughout the program,” Tigers coach Don Metil said. “Leaders find ways to bring people along with them, and she has that characteristic.”
The 5-foot-9 Wilson is studying Geography and Environmental Planning at Towson and is setting up a career in that arena once her playing days are done. She finished at Virginia ranked sixth all-time in career assists at the ACC school.
This season, her ability to take difficult touches and turn them back into fluid offense has been a key as the Tigers have continued a ridiculous run that has seen them continue their winning ways under Metil.
Around the COVID-racked 2020 season, Towson has posted celestial 29- and 26-win campaigns. The Tigers also won the CAA in 2020, and had a conference record 36-match regular season winning streak snapped earlier this year.
“The coaches here were so great,” Wilson said of her decision to gravitate closer to home for her extra year. “The academics here, the team atmosphere and chance to experience a different program were all important, but it was an ‘aha’ moment for me with the coaches who are so passionate and care so much. They sold me on the championship mentality here.”
Wilson and her teammates hoisted the CAA championship trophy two weeks ago on their home floor, overcoming a 2-0 deficit in the championship against Elon. The Tigers closed with three consecutive winning sets behind CAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Irbe Lazda and all-tournament teammates, junior middle blocker Lydia Wiers and sophomore outside hitter Nina Cajic.
“We just had such confidence because of the coaches,” Wilson said. “They just told us [when Towson was behind two sets] that we had done it before, and we were going to do it again today. I don’t recall a moment those last three sets where I thought we’d lose.”
Ironically, crosstown UMBC had a similar experience in the America East championship at the Retrievers’ home Chesapeake Employers Insurance Arena Nov. 20. After dropping the first two sets, UMBC rallied to win for the 14th time in the last 15 matches this season and capture that second straight America East crown. In the semifinals, the Retrievers had to overcome a 2-1 deficit and fight off a match point before easing past Stony Brook.
It was all part of a long process for head coach Cristina Robertson’s team, which lost seven of their first eight contests against a tough schedule to start the season.
“Last year was hard with COVID and this year when we came in, we had two weeks to get ready for the season,” said the leader of the America East Coaching Staff of the Year. “As coaches we had to learn [about the team] ourselves, and we had to get through some injuries. It took us a little bit of time to find out what works best for us.”
The Retrievers had some new pieces joining the core veterans like America East Defensive Specialist of the Year Loren Teter and and All-Academic selection Aysia Miller. Transfer setter Andjelija Draskovic from Serbia by way of Northeastern (Colo.) Junior College was second-team all-conference. Freshmen Mila Bilusic and Mla Ilieva were All-Rookie Team picks, with Bilusic named Rookie of the Year and first-team all-conference.
Draskovic and Grace Rigsbee, a grad transfer from Georgia Tech, added experience and stability as the Retrievers figured things out.
“I think we turned things around just by turning toward each other,” Rigsbee said. “[In the America East Tournament], Teter was just looking and saying, ‘Grace we have to do this.’ We’re both grad students and like her, I tried to come into the huddle and tell everyone we couldn’t give up. We had to get everyone’s emotions on the right page. We had to battle and believe in ourselves.”
Rigsbee wants to become a sustainability analyst. She and Teter helped sustain the Retrievers’ run, now continuing on to No. 3 Pittsburgh (Dec. 3 at 7 p.m.) where the Panthers (26-3) have their highest seed ever in the tournament.
“It’s a tough one,” Robertson said. “We’re going to prepare and give it all we’ve got. We’ve got a lot of good leadership within the team. It’s one thing for the coaches to have the team buy in, but it’s another thing when it’s players-driven and that’s what we’ve had.”
The winner of the Pitt-UMBC tilt draws the winner of Towson-Penn State (Dec. 3 at 4 p.m) on Dec. 4, also in Pittsburgh. The Tigers and Nittany Lions (20-10) met in the NCAA Tournament in 2019, Penn State prevailing 3-1 in its home Rec Hall. Penn State is 22-0 in the first round since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1988, but each of those matches were played in its home gym.
“It’s someone we’ve seen in the tournament before and I felt we played fairly well,” Metil said. “In 2019 [Penn State was] a seeded program so getting them at a neutral site maybe makes them a little more vulnerable. We still have some of our same kids that were part of that ’19 squad so as long as we show up and play well, we still believe we can make history.”
The Tigers count on outside hitters Fay Bakodimou of Athens, Greece, and Emily Jarome of Wilmington, Del., who were both first-team All-CAA honorees as seniors. Nina Cajcic, a sophomore outside hitter from Serbia, was a second team pick. Towson led the CAA in hitting percentage (.270), kills (13.07 per game), assists (12.04) and blocks (2.67).
Wilson, who grew up with her grandmother regularly taking her to the Baltimore Planetarium, was wishing upon a star she could reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Signing on with the Tigers was a great step in that direction, and then she fit right in.
“Even though we have talented kids, I think the culture we worked on day in and day out with our core values and our behaviors that kind of turn into habits have made us a championship program,” Metil said. “These kids embody that culture, and they have a lot of fight in them.”
Photo Credits: Nick Sibol/CAA Sports and Ian Feldmann