September 27, 2018 10:49:06 AM
Mississippi State first-year volleyball head coach Julie Darty didn't have a timetable.
However, she felt the breakthrough for her team would come sooner rather than later.
That moment came Wednesday night, when MSU stunned Auburn 3-2 (21-25, 12-25, 25-22, 25-23, 15-13) in Darty's first Southeastern Conference home match at the Newell-Grissom Building.
The ESPN cameras were there. A large student contingent was there. Cheer leaders and the Famous Maroon Band were in attendance. The MSU marketing department even brought in a camel to celebrate Hump Day.
Regardless of the electricity in the building, it looked like MSU's nine-game conference home losing streak was destined to continue.
Auburn overcame a sluggish start to win the first set and blitzed MSU in the second set.
"Don't ever give up," MSU freshman outside hitter Paige Shaw said. "That's the main thing the coaches have been stressing. We aren't where we want to be, but don't give up. Continue to fight and look at each set as a new opportunity. In the third set, things started falling right for us and it just kept going and going."
Darty's first team is 5-11. She was hired in January after David McFatrich's final MSU team finished 1-17 in league play. That group of Bulldogs had a stretch of 33-straight lost sets in conference play.
It's not a rebuild at MSU. It's a build. The volleyball program has never played in the NCAA tournament. Wednesday was a chance to take a dozen steps forward in that build.
"Honestly, felt like we have been close to a breakthrough for quite some time," Darty said. "The average person is seeing our final scores and not monitoring the team that closely. In practice every day, we move just a little bit further down the road. To be able to come from down 2-0 to win this match, well it can be season changing. All of sudden, you have found a way to do this once. Now, the challenge is go out and do it again."
Shaw had 18 kills and was dominant in the third set when the Bulldogs were hanging on. Shaw also had four blocks as did freshman Deja Robinson. Sophomore Kendall Murr had 19 digs. Starkville native Khristian Carr's leadership in the third set kept the team going when things looked bleak.
The Bulldogs had separation for most of the fourth set and kept the Tigers at bay. The fifth set was a 50-50 proposition before the Bulldogs bowed their necks.
The crowd got louder and louder as the Bulldogs rallied from the dead. MSU players were high fiving on virtually every point, while a veteran Auburn team looked shaken.
"(Auburn) let up a little bit after that second set," Shaw said. "Once we got the lead there late in the third set, we felt like we could come all the way back."
Darty left a successful coaching career at Jacksonville to come to MSU. The blueprint coaches used at small schools to have success in the SEC has been tried and failed many times before in Starkville. McFatrich came from Central Arkansas and lasted three seasons.
"Things are just different," Shaw said. "I can't speak to last year, but the veteran players have said it's a totally different experience. Encouragement is the right word."
Darty has seen that attitude come through in practice.
"This group works hard every day," Darty said. "When the losses start mounting, it's easy to get down. To have the breakthrough this early in conference play is huge. The girls can look back upon this match and realize they're capable of coming back. Like any other team, we need more consistency. We will find that as we continue to grow."
For Shaw, the victory was satisfying, since she grew up less than two hours from the Auburn campus.
"I wanted this one badly," Shaw said. "It's a special win for me. We showed a little bit what we are made of. As a freshman, you want to tell the recruits to come here and be a part of this."
Darty said the team will take full advantage of a nine-day break before the next home match with Kentucky on Oct. 5.
Hopefully, the camel can clear its schedule for that one, too.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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