FAIRFIELD, Conn. -- The Bryant University volleyball team returns to the postseason for the second time in as many years for the 2016 Northeast Conference Tournament Nov. 19-20. Bryant secured the No. 3 seed for the second-straight season after earning its highest regular-season finish in the program's DI history. The Bulldogs will faceoff against No. 2 LIU Brooklyn in the second semifinal Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
SETTING THE FIELD
Sacred Heart enters the tournament as the top seed for the third time and will host the 2016 NEC Tournament at the William H. Pitt Center in Fairfield, Conn. Central Connecticut rounds out the four-team field in the No. 4 spot. The winner of Saturday's first semifinal between the Blue Devils and the Pioneers will take on the winner of the Bulldog/Blackbird matchup Sunday at 5:00 p.m. LIU Brooklyn has won three of the last four NEC titles, with the exception coming in 2015 (Robert Morris) and will be looking for its 10th overall tournament crown. Sacred Heart last won the tournament in back-to-back 2010 and 2011 seasons, marking its only Championship wins, while Bryant and CCSU will each be looking for their first league crown. Sunday's champion will advance to the NCAA tournament, with first- and second-round matches played Dec. 1-3.
NEC TOURNAMENT HISTORY
With the exception of last season, LIU Brooklyn and Sacred Heart have combined to win the NEC Tournament title in every season dating back to 2004. Robert Morris won its eighth title in 2015 but failed to qualify for the 2016 tournament on the final day of the regular season, falling to LIU Brooklyn in four sets. Fairleigh Dickinson (1987-89) and Wagner (1997) are the only other current NEC members to claim tournament titles, with UMBC (1998) and Rider (1994-96) also having championships to their name. LIU Brooklyn has gone to the finale 12 times, with Sacred Heart getting to Sunday three times.CLEAN SWEEPThe NEC Tournament has only been decided in five sets once, when Robert Morris beat UMBC back in 2000. The championship bout has gone to four frames five times — most recently in 2015 — while the winner has swept the title on 13 occasions.
BULLDOGS BACK IN POSTSEASON
Head coach Theresa Garlacy and her Bulldogs are back in the NEC Tournament for the second-straight season and will be looking for their first Division I postseason win in 2016 after a semifinal loss to eventual champion Robert Morris in the 2015 NEC Semifinals.
And while this may only be the second NEC Tournament appearance for the Black and Gold, Bryant and Garlacy are far from unfamiliar with postseason play. In the program's 12 seasons under Garlacy prior to the move to Division I, the Bulldogs made 10 NCAA Division II tournament appearances, won a DII ECAC Championship, and took home five Northeast-10 Conference regular-season titles and five tournament crowns (seven championship appearances).
» Second to None: Bryant tied for second place in the regular-season standings with a 10-4 league record, marking the team's best finish yet at the Division I level. LIU Brooklyn won the tiebreaker to earn the tournament's second seed.
» Hot Streak: The Bulldogs have been hot over the final few weeks of regular-season play and enter the tournament having won six of their last seven matches. During that stretch dating back to Oct. 22, Bryant has averaged 14.77 kills per set, outscoring opponents by more that four kills per frame. The Black and Gold are also outhitting opponents, .194 to .171 during the span that has seen the team win six straight from Oct. 22 through Nov. 6.
» Home Sweet Home: The Bulldogs were dominant at home in 2016, finishing the regular season with a 10-3 mark inside the Chace Athletic Center. Bryant suffered just a single league loss at home, a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Sacred Heart Oct. 8.
» Winning Ways: The Bulldogs tied the Division I program records for total wins (19) and conference victories (10) in 2016, marks previously set in 2015. An NEC Semifinal victory Saturday would put the 2016 squad alone at the top of the DI single-season wins category and mark the program's first 20-win campaign since 2007 (32).
» Winner, Winner: Bryant posted back-to-back winning records for the first time in its Division I era and the first time since 2006-07 as the Black and Gold enter the 2016 NEC Tournament with a 19-14 overall mark. This season marks the third winning campaign for the Bulldogs since moving to Division I and is also the first time in the DI era the team has earned back-to-back winning records in league play (10-4 in 2015 and 2016).
DIMES, DIGS AND DOUBLE-DOUBLES
Senior captain Vika Katzen has proven she is once again one of the top setters in the game. The third-year playcaller is just eight digs away from becoming the fourth player in program history — and first at the Division I level — to finish her career with 2500+ assists and 1000+ digs. The senior has 837 assists and 329 digs this season entering weekend action and is among the nation's leaders in double-doubles with 20 in the team's 33 matches. Katzen has 55 career double-doubles to date and enters tournament play with 2875 career assists and 992 career digs.
DOUBLE YOUR FUN
Katzen isn't the only Bulldog to knock out a stream of double-doubles this season. Sophomores Kirstyn Sperry and Julia Flynn have joined her, registering 16 and 10, respectively. But Sperry's incredible all-around year has also included a pair of triple-doubles, coming Aug. 26 against Hartford (10k, 16a, 11d) and Sept. 20 at Providence (14k, 21a, 15d).
Up and down the Bulldogs' schedule, opponents have had trouble finding an answer for sophomore outside hitter Julia Flynn. The Pembroke, Mass., native leads the Bulldogs with 287 kills this season despite playing in just 92 of the team's 118 sets. Flynn's best performance came against Robert Morris Oct. 23, when the sophomore set the all-time program record for kills in a match with 34. That number ranks sixth in all of Division I this season for kills in a five-set match. Flynn also set the program mark for points in a single match in the outing (34.0).
SERVES YOU RIGHT
With 41 aces on the season so far, sophomore setter Kirstyn Sperry has now led the program in the category in back-to-back seasons (41 in 2015). Sperry accounts for more than a quarter of the Bulldogs' total aces this season (156) and ranks second in the league and 35th in the nation in the category.
A trio of Bulldogs — sophomores Julia Flynn and Kirstyn Sperry and senior Sara DePouw — eclipsed the 200-kill mark in 2016, paced by 287 from Flynn. DePouw added 244 and Sperry posted 205 while pulling double duty as a setter and rightside. Bryant has boasted three players with at least 200 kills in all but two seasons at the Division I level (2013, 2015).
Sophomore Kirstyn Sperry was arguably the team's top all-around performer in 2016, and the setter finishes the regular season ranked in the team's top-3 in a plethora of categories. Sperry enters the postseason ranked third on the squad in kills (205), blocks (57), digs (280) and serve percentage (.950); second in assists (524), assists per set (4.60) and points (275); and first in aces (41) and aces per set (0.36).
SYD THE KID
Rookie Sydney Gorski has been a sparkplug for the Black and Gold over their final seven matches, helping the team to a 6-1 record over that span. Of Gorski's 62 kills on the season, the frosh has recorded 41 of them since Oct. 22. The Ohio native averages 2.05 kills per set with a .275 attack percentage over the last seven contests, appearing in 20 of the 26 sets. She has also picked up 10 blocks and three aces during the stretch.
Despite each only having played three seasons, seniors Sara DePouw and Vika Katzen will leave their names all over the Bulldog record books when they graduate in May. In the all-time career record books, DePouw currently ranks 14th in kills per set (2.37), 16th in block assists (180), 18th in kills (744), 19th in attack percentage (.227) and 20th in total blocks (191). Katzen ranks fifth all-time in assists (2875), fourth in assists per set (7.86) and 14th in digs per set (2.71). Also already ranked in the career top-20s are sophomore setter Kirstyn Sperry (11th in assists, 845) and junior middle Ally Lunsford (7th in block assists, 246; 11th in total blocks, 273).
As a unit, the Bulldogs broke into the program's top-10 single-season records in three different categories. The 2016 edition currently ranks 10th for kills in a season (1980) and kills per set in a season (13.49) and ranks eighth in assists per set in a single season (12.66).