By Devin Golden
CENTRAL, S.C. — Despite losing Tuesday, Dalton State College’s women’s volleyball team ushered in a new era for the school.
And near the end of the match, the Roadrunners started to gel.
Dalton State lost its season opener 25-10, 25-15, 25-19 to Southern Wesleyan University at the Warriors’ Tysinger Gymnasium.
Aside from being the first volleyball match for Dalton State, it also was the first sports event of any type since the school relaunched a long dormant intercollegiate athletics program. The school last had sports — men’s basketball, golf and tennis — three decades ago when it was known as Dalton Junior College.
For most of the players, that historical significance was nonexistent during the game. However, it was on their minds before and after.
“For me, it’s just a game when I’m playing,” said freshman Tori Pierce, a defensive specialist who finished with a team-high six digs. “But now that I think about it, it’s awesome. Now it hits me.”
The college announced the return of athletics in the summer of 2011 and hired Derek Waugh as athletic director in February 2012. After months of simply talking about sports, the Roadrunners finally got down to playing.
Of the fans who made the trip to root for the Roadrunners, Waugh offered the most boisterous cheers, including yelling “All right, let’s get on a run now!” during the second game.
For him, it was just as exciting to watch as it was for the players to play.
“This is fun as heck,” he said. “I’m having a blast.”
The first two games had similar scripts. The Roadrunners stuck around with the Warriors before their run caused some negative attitudes, players said. Butterflies also played a factor.
“I was nervous,” said junior outside hitter Alyne Bianchi. “When we came out, we all knew we were making history.”
In the third game, the Roadrunners had their most impressive stretch. Southern Wesleyan held a 21-8 lead, but Dalton State scored 10 of the next 12 points to make it 23-18.
Southern Wesleyan’s Megan Widener halted the run, but Bianchi had a kill off an assist from junior setter Clarisse Weber. The game ended when Bianchi’s serve went out of bounds.
Bianchi had a block and two of her team-high 11 kills in the run. And Weber served on five consecutive points and had one of her eight assists in the stretch. The team’s other setter, junior Michaela Askew, also had one of her eight assists during the run, and sophomore blocker Kailey Vaughn recorded all three of her blocks in the near comeback.
“The team was gelling together like we should,” said freshman Savannah Nelson, a middle blocker who finished with four kills and one block. “It was the first moment we clicked.”
Dalton State has only been in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for 19 days. So the team with 15 players — 10 of them underclassmen — only had so many practices to fit in those two and a half weeks. Dalton State had to face a 10-player team with just two underclassmen that went 22-16 overall and finished fourth in the NAIA’s Southern States Athletic Conference last season.
“They were seniors and juniors, and we’re still young,” Dalton State coach Bruna Langner said. “At the beginning, we were panicking and playing against ourselves. ... At the end, that’s the team I see every day in practice.”
And the handful of parents who made the trip got to see it, too. Finally.
“This will mean so much from here on out because it was the first game,” said Rob Nelson, Savannah’s father.
Luckily for the Roadrunners, the second match is right around the corner. An exhibition against Lee University — Langner’s alma mater — starts at 6 p.m. Friday in Cleveland, Tenn.
After checking off the first match, Dalton State’s next task is checking off the first win.
“They’ll have a better showing against Lee,” Rob Nelson predicted.