All sporting events are altered by momentum, but a sport like volleyball — one not dictated by a clock — is even more prone to one team building a lead and running away with it.
It’s a dynamic that makes East Carolina’s Tuesday upset of N.C. State — a 3-2 victory achieved after falling into a 2-0 hole — even more remarkable. The Pirates (5-1) battled back to defeat an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent on the road.
Signature win, indeed.
Capturing a match victory after falling in the first two sets is a bit like a football team that pulls out a victory after trailing 21-0 at halftime. Or a baseball team that prevails despite a 10-2 deficit after the fifth inning.
It’s a rare enough occurrence that ECU junior right side hitter Bri Wood only remembers one other comeback win from two sets down — two years ago at Houston.
“We definitely fed off N.C. State’s crowd,” said Wood, who had 12 kills and 11 digs in the win. “After being down 2-0 we were like, we can’t go down. And I feel like being down 2-0 made us more determined to get back after the next one. Because it’s not over after two sets, it’s one point at a time. Don’t get frustrated. Grab somebody, tell them to calm down, just keep working hard.”
ECU earned an early 15-12 lead in the first set, but the Wolfpack rallied to pull out a 25-19 win, and the second set ended with the same score after NCSU held the advantage for most of the frame.
It was at that point that many teams would have been deflated enough to give into the opponent’s momentum, but the Pirate players turned their huddles into mini-motivational seminars and pulled out to a 10-3 lead.
“In huddles, it was like, ‘Let go of the past, whatever happened, let it go,’” Wood said. “Every point is a new point. You can’t dwell on it, and also, give it your all, just give it your best.”
State surged again in that third set, tying the score at 27. But when ECU eked out a 29-27 win to extend the match, the players noticed a change in the women facing them on the other side of the net. Suddenly there was almost a palpable shift in the Wolfpack’s spirit, Wood said, and the pendulum swung to purple and gold.
“They definitely got more timid,” she said. “It was definitely like, ‘Oh wow, they’re doing this.’ ”
The momentum might have belonged to the Pirates, but that didn’t mean the intensity eased up at all. The fourth set was a battle of wills that was still tied up at 18 until ECU pulled out a 25-21 triumph to force the decider. In the fifth set, junior outside hitter Sydney Kleinman started off with two kills and also scored the final two points to give her team the match victory.
“Because they’re an ACC team, they’re a lot bigger, a lot more physical at the net than what we’re normally used to in our conference,” said Kleinman, who collected 18 blocks and 10 digs to join Wood in the double-double club. “But I think we just kind of saw that and were like, ‘OK, it’s going to give us a chance to be more physical too.’ And we definitely brought it with our blocks. We outblocked them, outswing them, everything was clicking, everything was working.”
“I just couldn’t be prouder of the team for beating a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, especially an in-state rival in its home arena,” head coach Julie Torbett said. “We have said we needed to take that next step as a program and schedule tougher because our league is so good.”
With five road wins under their belt, the Pirates finally get a chance to coast on that momentum in their home arena this weekend as they host the Pirate Invitational. All of the matches are free to fans, as ECU faces George Washington Friday night at 7 p.m., Norfolk State Saturday at 1 p.m. and USC-Upstate Saturday at 7 p.m.
After finding a new level of intensity at the net on Tuesday in Raleigh, Kleinman and her teammates and coaches hope that the Pirate Nation will show up to see what comes next after a historic victory.