By Pat Murray
These Purple Eagles are really early birds.
The Niagara University women’s volleyball team, which is having its best season in more than a decade, has been practicing at 6 a.m. most days. Those early morning practices continued this week as the Purple Eagles prepare for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament, which gets under way Saturday at the Gallagher Center.
The fourth-seeded Purple Eagles (16-9 overall, 6-3 MAAC) take on top-seeded Fairfield (17-12, 8-1) at noon Saturday. Second-seeded Siena (18-11, 7-2) meets third-seeded Iona (11-19, 6-3) at 3 p.m. Saturday. The championship match is at noon Sunday.
“I’m glad the match isn’t at 6 a.m. I don’t know if I would be there,” joked Niagara libero Micole Daluisio. “I hate the morning practices, but we have been able to get a lot accomplished.”
That’s for sure. Niagara’s 16 wins are the most since the 1993 team went 19-16. That was the last season the Purple Eagles finished with a winning record.
Niagara had a seven-game winning streak earlier this season before losing three straight conference matches. The Purple Eagles were able to rebound, though, winning their last four MAAC matches to grab the final spot in the conference tournament. Niagara closed out the regular season with home wins over Rider and Loyola to secure the berth.
"We really jelled as a team last weekend,” senior outside hitter Erin Graham said. “We’re at the peak of our performance. We had a few injuries in the middle of the season, but we’re back on track.”
Niagara will be looking for payback against Fairfield, which swept the Purple Eagles 29-31, 26-30, 21-29 at the Gallagher Center on Oct. 23.
“All three games were close, and we had a lead in two of those games,” NU coach Rocco Lucci said. “Both of our teams have a very balanced attack and we run the same kind of offense. We feel very confident going into this match.”
Niagara has another reason for payback. The NU men’s and women’s soccer teams both lost to Fairfield in conference tournament play — the men in the semifinals and the women in the finals.
“I think the third time against Fairfield is the charm,” Graham said.
The tournament winner receives an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. NU has never advanced to the NCAA tourney in volleyball.
“Now our focus isn’t on making it into the conference tournament, it’s on making it into the NCAA Tournament,” Lucci said.
Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students, senior citizens and youths. Tickets are available at the NU ticket office or at Ticketmaster outlets.