The rubber match looms and history says it will happen.
Lipscomb hosts the Atlantic Sun Conference volleyball tournament this weekend at Allen Arena, starting on Thursday. The Bisons shared the regular-season championship with top-seeded Belmont, which captured its first crown in program history.
The teams finished with identical 11-2 league marks and split the regular-season series. A third match, most likely, is just around the corner.
The schools have met in the league tournament each of the last five years, with Lipscomb victorious three times and Belmont winning twice. The winner of that match has won the championship tournament every time. Lipscomb captured the crown in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Belmont won in 2006 and 2008.
“It doesn’t matter how the seedings come out, every year for the last five years we have played each other in the conference tournament. Is it guaranteed to happen again? No,” said Belmont coach Deane Webb, who on Tuesday was named the A-Sun’s coach of the year. “It is something that historically speaking always tends to happen. So I would not be surprised if it were to happen again. ... It would be fitting.”
The teams actually have met for the championship match just once. That was 2008 when Belmont swept the Bisons in three sets.
If the crosstown rivals are to meet again this year it would have to come in the title match — with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line. Top-seeded Belmont (20-8) will play either No. 4 seed Kennesaw State or fifth-seeded ETSU at 7:30 p.m. on Friday. No. 2 seed Lipscomb (18-9) will see third-seeded Florida Gulf Coast or sixth-seeded North Florida at 5 p.m. on Friday. The winners of those matches will play in the finals at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
“These girls don’t come in as freshman hoping to get to the tournament. They expect to get to the tournament. They don’t hope to win a championship. They expect to win it,” Lipscomb coach Brandon Rosenthal said. “So I don’t think it really matters who is in the way. More importantly for us, and it is something we have done well with, is take care of the first match [on Friday]. If we get the chance to play Belmont, I don’t think there is going to be any doubt in my mind that our goals will be ready to play. Sure, it will be a special match.”
The Bisons were cruising into their Oct. 25 match at Belmont, riding a 14-match winning streak, which included a five-set victory over the Bruins on Oct. 6. Lipscomb, however, hit a wall the second time in the series, falling to Belmont 3-1. It snapped a 44-match conference winning streak, which dated back to 2008 and started after a loss to Belmont.
“Defensive lapses,” Rosenthal said, hurt Lipscomb in that match and in two of three that followed. The Bisons fell to Tennessee State in three sets, which Rosenthal considered a wake-up call, and then fell in five sets to ETSU.
Rosenthal, however, says he is not concerned about his team slumping at the wrong time.
“I’ve said all year long, even before we started the season, I really think this is a team that can win a championship and I feel good,” Rosenthal said. “I think we have worked through some of our kinks that we’ve had throughout the year and I’m just excited about the level of play we are playing at right now. Not only that, but the drive that these girls have — they want this.”
Belmont, on the other hand, has ripped off five straight wins and is 18-3 since Sept. 3.
The Bruins, who will move to the Ohio Valley Conference next season, have won 20 matches thanks to a balanced lineup led by outside hitter Maggie Johnson. The senior shared A-Sun co-player of the year honors with Lipscomb middle blocker Katie Rose. Belmont placed five players, including libero of the year Jamie Lundstrom, on the first, second and all-freshman A-Sun teams. Lipscomb had four players earn all-conference recognition.
“It is about everybody,” Webb said. “It is just exciting to see that this year our team is truly a team in every sense of the word, maybe more so than almost any team I’ve coached. It is a great team and a joy to be a part of.”
As special of a season it has been, Webb said it would be a “great disappointment” if the Bruins failed to win the conference tournament and advance to the NCAA Tournament. Lipscomb, still angry from the loss three weeks ago, would love to play the role of spoiler and Belmont is well aware of that. The Bruins, however, aren’t fearful of the possible rematch that lurks ahead.
“Obviously, they are a dangerous team,” Johnson said. “But we’re not going into the tournament afraid to see anybody. We know what we can do and we are worried about our side of the net. What happens on the other side really is out of our control.
"Whether we see them or not, none of us we would be too scared if they were on the other side of the net. But, really, that is because we are confident in ourselves and confident in our ability as a team.”