Charlottesville, VA—The volleyball belonged to Sarah Billiard tonight; it did everything she asked of it, soaring deep into Clemson corners, dropping like a knife center court, twisting and flying anyway she wanted it to. Any one of the fans, coaches or players packed into Memorial Gymnasium where the Cavaliers took on the Tigers this Friday night would have to agree; Billiard was back from her injury with a vengeance.
Virginia toppled Clemson in three straight sets (25-17, 25-17, 25-19), owing much of their energy and momentum to power plays by Billiard. Coming off an injury, she was eager to get back on the court to finish her freshman season, “I missed being out on the court,” Billiard said afterward. “Every game sitting on the sideline, I’m just like man I wish I could be back. I wish I could’ve come back sooner…but I have the rest of the season to keep working hard, continuing my rehab, continuing to strengthen my leg and get back to normal.” If this isn’t Billiard’s “normal”, her opponents should be scared to see what comes next, as she finished out the match with eleven kills and five blocks, a career high.
Also assisting in the big win were Virginia sophomore Jelena Novakovic and freshman Alex Spencer, each with seven kills. As Head Coach Aaron Smith said, “Alex Spencer passed 75% of the balls tonight and handled it like a champ.”
Though the Cavaliers shut out Clemson throughout the three sets, the Tigers maintained their energy with the help of sophomore Kaylin Korte, who not only led Clemson with her dynamic spirit and unfailing vivacity, but also with 13 kills.
The Cavaliers opened the first set strong with a beautiful block by Novakovic and redshirt sophomore Kat Young. Virginia took an early 8-2 lead and maintained control of the set with their largest lead at 17-8. During a Clemson timeout, it became clear Virginia had found their rhythm, as intermittent cheers came up from the Cavalier bench throughout their thirty-second break, getting back on the court to close out the set at 25-17.
Clemson attempted a comeback in the second set, managing to catch Virginia twice and tie up the score. Though Clemson fought hard to win back the momentum later in the set by subbing and calling timeouts, the Tigers couldn’t stop the Cavaliers, who steamrolled their way to a win with a strong offensive game and a steady back line. Virginia took the second set with a kill by senior Hayley Fauntleroy, to finish off again at 25-17.
At the opening of the third set, Clemson’s energy was back and the momentum began to shift in the Tigers’ favor. They took a 6-4 lead and kept up with Virginia point for point through most of the third set, tying up the game nine times.
Every time Virginia fell a point behind Clemson, Billiard was there, finding a way to tie up the game again, firing kills straight to the back line. At 14-14, the Cavaliers pulled ahead with six straight points. Virginia took the set and the match at 25-19 with a kill by Young.
“We’ve been working hard over the past few weeks but we haven’t been consistent. Tonight, everyone came out and did their jobs really well,” said Novakovic, “I’m very happy our progress is showing up on the court.”
The team owes much of this newfound consistency to the return of Billiard. For Coach Smith, winning the match tonight came down to a conversation he had with the outside hitter after practice yesterday. “Believe it or not, Sarah had a pretty rough week at practice,” he said, “She’s the type of player that when the ball is in the air, she just wants to score. She wants to hit a thousand every match. I had to tell her, look, sometimes it’s just not gonna be there, you have to be a stronger player.”
Looking ahead, Virginia faces Georgia Tech tomorrow night. “We’ve got momentum going into tomorrow night,” Coach Smith said, “We’re gonna have to come out, play hard and hopefully get another W.”