The month of October was not kind to the Charlotte 49ers volleyball team. It lost nine of its 10 October matches, all of them against Conference USA foes.
It was during that stretch that right-side hitter Laura Cantrell began to think that her senior year would finish the same way the team’s previous three seasons ended: with a losing record and failing to qualify for the league tournament.
Then the calendar flipped over a month.
Charlotte won its four regular-season matches in November to clinch a berth in the C-USA tournament, the team’s first tournament appearance since 2010. The 49ers lost their first-round match but finished 17-17 to register the program’s first non-losing overall record in four years and the most victories since 2006.
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The team’s strong finish has the coaching staff and players feeling as if the program has turned the corner. First-year head coach Gokhan Yilmaz says the 13 of 15 players returning to next year’s team and a talented incoming freshmen class should make next year’s goals even loftier.
“This is a process,” said Yilmaz. “We want to gain respect in the region and in the conference, that when people hear Charlotte volleyball they know it’s a good program. I think we’re on the right track with that.”
Charlotte’s late-season turnaround actually may have begun with one of its October losses: On Oct. 26, the 49ers dropped a five-set match to Texas-San Antonio, the eventual regular-season conference co-champions.
Knowing it was so close to knocking off one of the conference’s best teams told Charlotte it was good enough to compete in C-USA. A loss to Florida Atlantic followed, but the 49ers’ results were about to change.
“We always talked about it as a team, that whoever is on that day is going to win,” said junior Britney Held, twice named C-USA’s setter of the week this season. “There weren’t really any powerhouses. Even the top two teams could get beat by anyone in the conference.”
Victories against Florida International, Texas-El Paso, Middle Tennessee and Southern Mississippi propelled Charlotte into the top eight in the league standings. Yilmaz said the results were a matter of the team playing more up-tempo.
The win streak helped set up a first-round match with Texas-San Antonio. Charlotte forced extra points in two of three sets against the Roadrunners, losing the first set 26-24 and the third 28-26.
The good feelings at the end of the season matched how well the season started for the 49ers, who won 11 of their first 17 matches, including titles in three early-season tournaments.
Cantrell, one of just two seniors on the team, said she felt the team’s October woes can be attributed to unforced errors and the team’s chemistry being slow to develop.
“At the end of the season we got really good at staying confident on the court,” said Cantrell. “We realized mistakes would be made. We did well playing for each other and knowing we still had a chance to make the conference tournament.
“There was a goal there, and we weren’t playing for nothing.”
Losing players to injury didn’t help; junior libero Michelle Hovey missed the entire season and redshirted. Sophomore Semen Sen, a starting middle blocker, was out the second half of the year.
“I think we have a lot of potential especially with the players coach is bringing in,” said Abreia Epps, a redshirt freshman outside hitter. “We have nowhere else to go but up form here.”
Through the 49ers’ first three games, sophomore guard Lefty Webster led the team in scoring, averaging 15.3 points per game.
With 27 points against N.C. State on Nov. 18, senior guard Hillary Sigmon was second on the team with a 13.3 points-per-game average. Senior forward Kira Gordon led Charlotte with eight rebounds per game.