The seventh time was the charm for the Aggies in an epic fifth set in front of a raucous crowd at Club Estes.
Kylee Stokes and Kennedi Boyd teamed up for a block on Utah State’s seventh match point of the decisive fifth set to propel the hosts to a gratifying, come-from-behind, hard-fought 3-2 victory (25-21, 18-25, 22-25, 25-22, 22-20) over a very good San Jose State team in a Mountain West volleyball showdown on Thursday night on Kirby Court.
In the process, the Aggies avenged an early October loss to the Spartans, who are still in second in the conference standings, and punched their ticket to the Mountain West Tournament with still three matches remaining in the regular season. USU (18-8, 10-5) also moved into a third-place tie with Colorado State (17-9, 10-5) in the league standings.
“I’m so proud of our group,” USU head coach Rob Neilson said. “Just a really good San Jose team and that was gritty from us. So many people came in off the bench and contributed, and we finally found the right mix. And it’s great to get a win in here in front of this crowd.”
It was a fifth set for the ages for the Aggies, who improved to 5-2 in decisive sets this season. This particular fifth set featured 12 ties, five lead changes and five challenges. USU was successful on two of its three challenges, while SJSU (18-7, 12-3) challenged twice and was successful once.
The Spartans took their final lead of the fifth set at 13-12 on a kill by Letizia Cammillucci. The Aggies scored the next two points to secure their first of seven match points, and there were a compelling 13 straight sideouts before the hosts were able to win the final two points of the match.
“Oh my god, it felt amazing,” said USU outside hitter Shelby Cappllonch, who came through with four of her 15 kills in the fifth set. “And the crowd, we literally had to yell at each other to talk to each other on the court. Full out, I’m pretty sure half the team is going to lose their voice tomorrow, but the crowd really brought us in that last set, especially the last 20 points of that whole fifth set. But yeah, it was amazing being out there with our team and the bench was going crazy, we were going crazy, Rob was going crazy, so it was amazing. It was such a great feeling.”
The Aggies initially thought they had the match won at 19-17 on a clever two-handed push shot by Kaylie Ray to the back corner of the line. However, the Spartans challenged the point as, earlier in the rally, the SJSU coaching staff contested USU had two players touch the first ball virtually in succession. It was initially ruled one touch, but after the replay the official ruled both players touched the ball, meaning the Aggies had four touches at one point during the rally.
“And so that was a good catch by their coach because it was a minute touch,” Neilson said.
To their credit, the Aggies were able to regroup, win the next point on a decisive spike by Ray and ultimately pull out one of their most meaningful victories of the season. USU prevailed despite getting foiled by the SJSU block time and time again during the first three sets. The Spartans outblocked the Aggies by a 9-1 margin during the second and third sets. SJSU finished with an impressive 18.0 team blocks, comparted to USU’s 10.0, and yet the hosts found a way to secure their third straight victory.
“They’re athletic and they’re physical, (and) I thought that we struggled and maybe got ahead of ourselves, you know, because they are so big and physical,” Neilson said of SJSU’s block. “It’s not something that you see all of the time. We didn’t take a lot of great swings. They had 13 blocks through three sets, and then we just kind of finally evened out a little bit and found some confidence, found some rhythm and took some better swings, right? If you’re going to play high-level volleyball, you’re going to have to play against big blocks, and our athletes starting finding hands and started finding the edges of the block, and did a great job of adjusting.”
The Aggies were able to match the Spartans with four blocks during the fifth set, much to the delight of Neilson.
“Yeah, again, big moments and pressure moments — — it’s loud, it’s tense and to see us relax and just play well is really fun, really gratifying and I think portends for big things for us going forward,” he said.
Tatum Stall led a balanced offensive attack for the Aggies with a match-high 17 kills, followed by Capllonch’s aforementioned 15, and Boyd’s 10. The Spartans also had three athletes contribute with double-digit putaways in Jiana Lawson (14), Cammillucci (14) and Blaire Fleming (11).
Capllonch was the only player in the match to record a double-double as she also chipped in with 11 digs, plus two of her team’s four aces.
“Honestly, I didn’t even realize that,” the UNLV transfer said when asked about her double-double. “I was just kind of out there swinging away and doing whatever I needed to. But I really couldn’t have done that without my block setting it up for digging and the sets being there, and being able to tool the block and do whatever I needed to do (to help win the points).”
Stall finished with a team-high three solo blocks for the Aggies, who got two solo blocks and three assists from Boyd. Libero Jordi Holdaway paced USU in digs with 14, plus she was one of the team’s most effective servers. Beatriz Rodrigues contributed with 26 assists for the Aggies, followed by Leah Wilton-LaBoy with 21. Wilton-LaBoy came through with a crafty dump in the fifth set to give the hosts a 9-7 advantage.
There was some compelling volleyball throughout the match, although the opening set featured sloppy play by both teams. Both teams had a whopping seven service errors in Set 1, plus there were a wealth of other miscues that ended points prematurely.
“We talked about (how) that was maybe one of the weirdest sets of volleyball, right? They had seven (service errors), we had seven errors,” Neilson said. “They hit negative. For that team to hit negative is pretty wild and so, yeah, you can win in a thousand different ways. And that’s what we’ve tried to preach is that, ‘hey, sometimes we’re going to be in the middle of the sagebrush, let’s win ugly. You know, it’s going to be rough sometimes, let’s just make it great and love to be there, and love the chance to compete together.’”