Photo | Tara Espinoza
The Arkansas Tech University volleyball program recently clinched the 2021 Great American Conference tournament championship. Finishing in third place at the end of the regular season, the Golden Suns knocked out Henderson State, Southwestern Oklahoma State, and first-seed Oklahoma Baptist to secure a place in the upcoming NCAA Central Region tournament.
Abby Simpson, an undeclared freshman from Miramar, Florida, said the outcome of the tournament was something she knew was possible before the regular season started. “I knew we would go far in the GAC tournament after seeing the potential and athleticism our team had during summer workouts and early in preseason. Even though I knew this, nothing prepares you for the moment it happens. I will never forget coming back from 1-7 in the fifth set against Oklahoma Baptist,” she said.
Given the depth of the outside hitter position, Simpson was not too sure what her role on the team would be.
“I did not know if I would be a starter. I knew I had the ability to, but we have so much skill on our team we constantly have to compete to see the court. I think preseason tournaments were a great time for me to transition from high school and club volleyball to a higher level of competition,” Simpson said.
Simpson is not a stranger to the pressures of athletics. She has been involved in competitive sports since she was 5 years old. This has helped her find ways to cope with pressure and stress in healthy ways within herself. However, she understands the importance of having a team behind you.
“Before coming to ATU I expected the team to be like a family, but we are closer than I imagined we would be. I rely on my teammates to keep my confidence high and to calm me down during high stress situations. Having a team of 21 has been great because there is always someone there when you need it. Whether it is on the court calling shots, or someone off the court giving you tips.”
With the help of her teammates behind her, Simpson recorded a career high 18 kills in the championship game against Oklahoma Baptist. She started the fifth set with uncharacteristic errors. When Head Coach Kera Dukic asked some of her players if someone else needed to go in, they were quick to say no and trusted in Simpson’s abilities to perform. After a pep talk from Dukic and encouragement from the team, Simpson and the rest of Golden Suns were able to go on a 14-3 run against the Bison, claiming the tournament title.
“About a month after I moved to Russellville my friends and family began telling me I was growing more confident and stronger. Not just as a player, but a person as well. This team and program have changed me for the better. I cannot wait to see where we are when I am a senior. This was the best way to start my career at ATU.”
The eighth seeded Golden Suns are set to play the first seed Central Missouri Jennies in the first round of the NCAA Division II Central Region tournament. The match will begin at 5 p.m. on Dec. 3 on the Jennies home court in Warrensburg, Missouri.