Friday, November 17, 2017

Top-seeded Furman set for SoCon Tournament

All-Southern Conference first team member Jamila Johnson helped lead
Furman to the SoCon regular season title. Photo courtesy of Furman.
The No. 1-seeded Furman volleyball team looks to take its first step in returning to the NCAA Tournament when the Paladins open play at the Southern Conference Tournament this afternoon at Western Carolina. At approximately 2:30 p.m., the Paladins will face the winner between No. 8 Mercer and No. 9 The Citadel, which kicks off the tournament at 9:30 a.m.

The Paladins earned the top seed after a huge turnaround from last season's 11-19 team that finished eighth in the SoCon. Picked to finish sixth this season, Furman (20-9) soared to the regular season title with a 14-2 mark in league play.

"All of our girls, from 1 to 14, have been really on board with what we're doing," Furman coach Michelle Young said. "The work and concentration you need to put in to compete at a high level, they've just been working together really well."

In her 18th season as head coach, Young earned SoCon Coach of the Year honors for the fifth time. Five Paladins earned All-SoCon honors, including first team member Jamila Johnson from Greenville. The former St. Joseph's Catholic School standout had a team-high 384 kills and was second on the team in digs with 329. Her 3.8 kills per set average ranked fourth in the SoCon.

Furman's Nicole Mack, Christen Sikora and Meg DeMaar made the second team, while Courtney Hoffman earned All-Freshman team honors.

With three other schools each having two players on the All-SoCon first team, Johnson being the lone member of the regular season champion is a testament to what kind of "team" the Paladins have this season.

"We have a balanced offense and have a lot of people that are contributing," Young said. "Whether its this weekend or that weekend, it's always someone different who can get hot."

A big key to Furman's success this season was dominating on its home court. The Paladins went 9-0 at Alley Gym and only lost two sets there all year. Even during last year's disappointing season, the Paladins went 6-3 at home. Furman has gone 44-5 at home over the last five seasons.

"Alley Gym is a smaller, older gym and we love it. It's our place," Young said. "That was a reason we moved back there a few years ago, while making steady improvements to make it a better venue each year."

While Furman went 6-7 in non-league play this season, it recorded key wins at Georgia Tech and Liberty. Young believes the difficult non-conference schedule only helped her team when SoCon play began.

She's hoping the schedule can continue to help the Paladins should they return home Sunday with the SoCon Tournament title. Furman is going for its fourth NCAA Tournament appearance overall after last reaching the tournament in 2015.

"We always play a pretty tough non-conference schedule because we feel pretty strongly that it's going to help us down the road," Young said. "You're having to really fight hard to even win sets but we feel like when we're in conference (play), we're not going to see anything harder than we've already seen.

"I don't think we've ever won (the SoCon Tournament) as the No. 1 seed, so I know the girls would love to kind of double-down and be able to win both championships."

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