Nov. 13, 2013
The Fayetteville State University volleyball team finds itself in a very familiar place this weekend: the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Conference Semifinals.
The Lady Broncos have reached this point in each of Coach Reeshemah Johnson's five years at the helm. Those runs culminated in a league championship and NCAA Division II Tournament appearance in 2012, a run Johnson's squad tries to repeat this weekend in Winston-Salem.
FSU plays Chowan at 10 a.m. on Saturday at the campus of Winston-Salem State University.
"They know what to expect, having already been there," Johnson said. "Having already won a championship, you get back to this point in the season and you start developing that hunger again. That's what I'm seeing with them now."
Of course, Johnson knows what that hunger looks like. She's been here before, several times, so nothing should intimidate the fifth-year head coach. As a player, after all, she was captain and setter on FSU's first CIAA championship team in 1996. In three years as an assistant from 1998 through 2000, the Lady Broncos won a CIAA title and finished runner-up twice.
So it should come as no surprise this time around that Johnson is prepared for the best from an opponent. She's had to prepare for that for years.
"Everybody gives us their `A' game," Johnson said. "When teams beat us this season, it's like they won the championship. There is a big target on our back. Everybody comes ready to play us. We don't have the dominance we had that we had last year. This year it has to be much more of a team effort. Everybody has to show up with their `A' game."
This year's Lady Broncos have shown a touch of resiliency, to say the least. They've lost four conference matches, including three of the first four matches of the season. But they've battled back and taken rematches against each of the opponents that knocked them down.
Each of them, that is, except for semifinal opponent Chowan. The teams haven't met since a Chowan sweep in Murfreesboro, N.C., on Sept. 15. Then again, FSU hadn't seen Virginia State - a team that knocked the Lady Broncos off 3-1 on that same Sept. 15 day - until this past weekend.
Then FSU got its dose of revenge, earning a 3-2 come-from-behind victory and a ticket to the semifinals.
"I think they have (come full circle)," Johnson said. "(We) are a stronger team than (we) were at the beginning. Chowan beat us at the beginning. We have this advantage knowing we can beat the teams who beat us at the beginning. That does give us some kind of mental fortitude.
"I expect my girls to come out and play the same way they played against Virginia State. We definitely can't take Chowan lightly. I expect us to know that and come out fully prepared for battle. We have to come out ready to fight."
Chowan is anchored by two All-CIAA playmakers. Brianna Smith, a sophomore outside hitter from Oxford, N.C., has 167 kills this year. Sophomore Cindy Ehrich, whom Johnson called the best libero in the conference, is third in the CIAA with 323 digs.
"They're a very scrappy team on defense," Johnson said. "We're going to have to be able to defend against their attacks and we're going to find ways to score on them."
Aiding FSU's chances to find offense will be a quarter of hitters who have found plenty of it this season. In Shavon Shaw and All-CIAA performers Joylene Thompson, Taylor Norris and Samira Luis, the Lady
Broncos have an even 600 kills worth of proven power.
Defensively, the duo of JaMisha Jordan and Decausha McLean have combined for 405 digs. Their play could be critical in slowing Chowan down and earning the Lady Broncos a bit of revenge.
"We've been in positions in situations where it would have been easy to give up and throw in the towel," Johnson said. "I think having that championship experience played a big role. Rather than just give up, they've kept playing."
The winner of the Chowan-FSU match-up gets the winner of Virginia State-Winston-Salem State for the conference championship.
The match will be streamed live on FSUBroncos.com.