UNC Pembroke’s Elly Hicks (20) goes up for the spike as her Braves teammates look on during the team’s game against Barton Tuesday at the English E. Jones Center in Pembroke. The Braves earned their eighth straight victory.
PEMBROKE — When many of the current volleyball players at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke came to campus as freshman, the program was in the midst of a four-year winless streak in conference play from 2015-19 that reached 49 games.
Now they’re riding a different kind of streak.
The Braves swept Barton Tuesday at the English E. Jones Center to earn their eighth straight win, five of which have come in Conference Carolinas play.
“Winning is always a great accomplishment, but to do eight in a row is definitely tough no matter who you are, so I’m just proud of this group,” first-year Braves coach Casey Wehling said. “They keep prevailing, they’ve put in that hard work, so they’ve really earned everything they’ve gotten so far, and that’s just a testament to them and the way this team is, the culture is, and what we can look forward to the rest of the season. We’re going to keep rolling as long as we can.”
UNCP (12-5, 5-0 CC) hasn’t had a winning conference record since 1994, and the Braves’ eight-game streak is the team’s longest since that 1994 season.
The streak began Sept. 11 against Albany State, and six of the eight wins have come away from home; the last four wins have been 3-0 sweeps, and the team has only lost three sets during the streak.
“It has been super-fun, because we’re introducing a group of girls that don’t know what it is to lose,” said sophomore Morgan Gibbs, who had a team-high 28 assists Tuesday. “It’s really nice to be looked up upon and not have dirt on your name.”
The Braves trailed early in the first two sets Tuesday — Barton (3-4, 0-2 CC) led 5-1 in the first set before the Braves won 25-14, and the Bulldogs led the second set 9-3 before UNCP won 25-20. A 9-2 run in the third set turned a 14-14 tie into a 23-16 UNCP lead before the Braves closed out the match with a 25-19 win.
It’s clear that winning comes far more naturally to this Braves team — a reflection of the new culture the program has built.
“When I came in as a freshman it was really hard for us to get that win, and for us to be where we are now, that’s really pushed us,” said senior Kaila Crowder, who led the Braves with 11 kills Tuesday. “Even last year, starting to build that winning culture, that really pushed us this season, and I feel like we have a great group of girls that know what they’re doing, they want to win, and I feel like that’s really what pushed us this far.”
When Wehling took over in May, she inherited a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2010. The tide began to turn last season, delayed to this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 7-8 overall record and a 7-7 conference mark in the sixth and final season for coach Ellen McGill, who was named Peach Belt Conference Coach of the Year.
“I think Ellen did a great job; she started this whole thing and I’m super thankful for her and she really handed over a gem to me,” Wehling said. “But these girls really understand what it takes, because they’ve been at the bottom.”
After McGill helped lay the groundwork, the Braves players say Wehling helped put them over the top and be the best version of themselves.
“She’s very tough on us because she knows the standard, and what we can actually reach, our potential,” Gibbs said. “She reminds us every day, ‘is this what you’re going to do to reach your goals, is this helping you,’ (when) we’re not doing it right and stuff, so we’re held more accountable.”
A big part of the Braves success has been each player understanding her role and doing her job well in that role. Brianna Warr
Looking ahead, the Braves play road games Friday at Emmanuel and Saturday at Erskine before returning to Pembroke for a four-game homestand. It’s a realistic possibility the streak could be far from over, with each of the Braves’ next five opponents each having a losing record.
However long the streak lasts, the Braves will continue with the camaraderie and hard work that’s sparked it through the rest of the season.
“We’re just a big family, and they hold each other accountable,” Wehling said. “We keep that in mind every day in practice, and we just remind them so they keep working hard, and we’re making mini-goals and we’re getting those accomplished.”
en, who has twice been named Conference Carolinas Player of the Week, has 151 kills and 73 blocks this season; Shannon Skryd has 159 kills and 186 digs; Elise Martin has 190 digs; and Crowder has 111 kills. In volleyball’s definitive role-player position, the Braves have two strong setters: Katie Pressley, who did not play Tuesday, has 409 assists and has twice been named Conference Carolinas Specialist of the Week, and Gibbs has 135 assists.
“It’s super-important, and then we don’t have to worry about miscommunication,” Wehling said. “We talk about communication a lot, and everybody knows what their role, what their job is. We made that clear in preseason, so it’s really helped us a lot; everybody knows where they fit in and what we expect of them as coaches, and their teammates as well.”
Even those Braves who are spending more time on the bench than on the court are relishing their roles.
“I feel like we all help each other, and even if someone at your position is playing over you, the person that’s not playing is still helping them on the sideline, like ‘hey, you can do this,’ or ‘hey, this is open for you,’” Crowder said.