As an 11-year-old volleyball player on a club team from Mobile, Meg Brackhan walked into the University of West Florida Field House for the first time for a tournament.
“I remember thinking, wow, this is such a big gym,” she said, laughing at that memory.
Sunday, on a big stage with an NCAA tournament trip at stake, Brackhan had a most valuable player award medal around her neck and a team feat to cherish, after the UWF women’s volleyball team captured the Gulf South Tournament championship in an enthralling way.
The No. 17-ranked Argos defeated Alabama-Huntsville in three sets, 25-21, 25-23, then 35-33 in an extended clinching set that featured back-and-forth serves for set points by both teams before UWF’s entire team erupted in joyful celebration.
“This whole experience has been so much fun,” said Brackhan, the Argos’ sophomore defensive specialist and Spanish Fort High grad from Baldwin County. “I think this team’s fight and ability to turn a not-so-ideal situation into something good is really cool.
“It is so rewarding and I’m so proud to be an Argo,” said Brackhan, who had 15 digs Sunday to lead all players, plus four total attacks. She had 17 digs in the Argos’ semifinal win Saturday against Montevallo.
The Argos (25-7), who finished 15-1 in conference play, won a sixth-consecutive GSC Tournament title, 12th overall, earning the automatic bid into the NCAA Division II Volleyball Tournament that begins Nov. 30, following the Thanksgiving week break.
The Argos will learn their opponent and site on Monday during the selection show at 6:30 p.m.
This will be UWF’s 17th national tournament trip in head coach Melissa Wolter’s 20-year tenure. Each one of these conference titles has been a special experience for Wolter and her current team stands out for its youth – only two seniors in the 10-player rotation Sunday – and its fortitude.
“I got very emotional at the end there, because this team has fought through so many things that nobody will ever know about,” said Wolter, who has been the legacy coach at UWF. “I think when you have a team that comes together to do what we’ve done in the last 48 hours (back-to-back wins) it is pretty impressive.
“And looking at the youth we had on the floor… wow, I was looking at our roster (Saturday) and thought we don’t have very many people on that court who have experienced this before.
“I am super proud of them. They showed a lot of poise, a lot of composure and a lot of fight today.”
Brackhan had the most experience on UWF’s court. In addition to youth tournaments, she attended UWF volleyball camps produced by Wolter, her staff and the players in those years when Brackhan was in high school less than 50 miles away.
“I think our camps have grown to a place where we are pulling players in and working with them, and they fall in love with our program, our players our staff, the tradition, history and pride of playing on this court. And that is what Meg has done,” Wolter said.
“I had her digging on an open net (as high school player), because I needed to see what this kid was made of. And she was just out there having a blast. I thought that kid has no fear. We have to have her.”
UWF trailed for only a combine four points in the first two sets. They opened a four-point lead at 23-19 in the third set when Alabama-Huntsville rallied to take a 24-23 lead on a block. From that point, it went back and forth with diving digs and and strong blocks by both teams.
“In the huddle after every point, we were saying ‘love the hard.’ Like, hey, love this so much. Love the game, love the hard,” said Brackhan, whose high school teammate, 6-foot-1 sophomore Avery Rogers was a key part of UWF’s rotation until sustaining a season-ending injury.
“The way this team can persevere through the hard is second to none,” Brackhan said. “I have never been on a team that can do that as well as we do.”
It was a motto Wolter has provided for her team since a tournament last season when the Argos won a five-set match against then-No.3 ranked Western Washington in the Colorado Premier Challenge Tournament.
“I think a lot of what we do in practice prepared them for that moment,” Wolter said. “We have a lot of scenarios in practice where we put them at 20-20 and 22-22.And times we won’t let one side win off the other team’s errors. I think our program has really embraced that motto.”
UWF won the regular-season matchup against Alabama-Huntsville (18-10) in four sets. The Argos knew a championship game brings a different type of dynamic.
“(Alabama-Huntsville) defense, their blocking and floor defense is very good,” Brackhan said. “We knew coming into the game that was going to be a challenge and they sure presented it.
“That third set they were not letting anything drop. They were challenging our hitters to find the floor. (Teammate) Gabi (Moulton) ran our offense so well and it put our hitters in a position to put the ball on the floor.
The way this team can persevere throught the hard is second to none. I have never been on a team that can do that as well as we do.”
Moulton, a freshman setter from Columbus, Ohio, joined Brackhan on the All-Tournament Team, along with junior outside hitter Annie Monaco from Dover, Ohio, who had 13 kills.
Jenna Zydlo, a sophomore from Kansas, led the team with 14 kills.
In winning the GSC title, it gave UWF’s athletic program 119 conference titles across 15 men’s and women’s sports, which is far more than anyone else in the league.
Bill Vilona is a retired Pensacola News Journal sports columnist and now senior writer for Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He can be reached at email@example.com