A pair of unexpected heroes pushed Miami volleyball into first place in the Mid-American Conference this weekend.
Miami entered Friday night in a three-way tie atop the MAC standings before senior middle hitter Courtney Simons and junior outside hitter Taylor Daignault led the Redhawks to wins over Ball State and Toledo, respectively.
While both players are key cogs in head coach Carolyn Condit's rotation, neither is typically featured in a starring role. That changed when the 'Hawks needed them most.
On Friday, Simons earned her first collegiate Player of the Match recognition with a 16-kill, two-block performance. She hit an astounding .565 hitting percentage - almost .300 points higher than any other RedHawk who tallied five or more attack attempts. She followed up with 10 kills on Saturday.
Simons put down four of Miami's final 12 points (including the game-winner) in the match-deciding fifth set against Ball State. She started the weekend with 35 kills this season and ended with 61.
"I thought she had a huge impact," Condit said on Friday. "Courtney is very resilient. She was a little frustrated because we had her against [Ball State's] biggest blocker. But she never got down and her offense kept getting better and better. I'm just real proud of her."
Daignault stuffed multiple areas of the statsheet against Ball State (eight kills, 13 digs, one assist) before exploding for a 13-kill, 12-dig and three-block game against Toledo. Like Simons the night before, Daignault was also named Player of the Match.
After the RedHawks lost momentum during the third and early fourth sets on Saturday, Daignault's aggressive play spearheaded her team's comeback and eventual set-victory with three final-set kills and a couple diving digs. She now has 49 kills and 147 digs - up from 28 and 122 before the weekend.
"Taylor Daignault was amazing," Condit said. "Her hand control and the shots she found against this team really kept them off-balance. Taylor was just creative all night. She made a big difference."
Both players established new season-highs in kills, with Simons' 16 Friday-night kills also setting a career-high.
Not heavily relied on earlier this season, Simons and Daignault are benefitting from lineup changes made by Condit at the start of MAC play. By shifting some players to different positions and subbing more often, Condit has taken advantage of the deep roster she has at her disposal. That was lacking in previous years.
Last season, the RedHawks won the MAC Championship and were led by seniors Katie Tomasic, Olivia Rusek and Maeve McDonald. Thus, whenever Miami got into trouble and needed someone to step up, it was usually one of those three.
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Non-conference play this season brought much of the same. The characters were a bit different - Tomasic, Rusek and McDonald graduated and gave way to Margaret Payne, Corrine Jemison and Stela Kukoc - but that new trio was tasked with coming in clutch.
That's not to say others weren't important in 2017 or the infant stages of the 2018 season. Daignault actually played a big role on last season's conference-championship team. She finished fifth on the team in kills (197) and second in digs (290).
But the lineup changes have yielded incredible success. Miami has a seven-game win-streak and sits at 17-5 (9-1 MAC) this season. Through 22 games in 2017, the RedHawks were 15-7 (7-2 MAC).
This year's team is outdoing last year's, and depth has played a part.
"The bench is amazing," Condit said. "They all pull for each other, and they come in, and they do something off the bench right away. Every team doesn't have that specialness about them."
Even with their breakout weekends, Simons and Daignault still rank in the middle of the team in most statistical categories. Simons is eighth in kills, and Daignault is ninth in kills and fifth in digs.
Daignault believes the talented RedHawks' bench allows them to win close games.
"No matter who we have in, or what rotation we're in, we're able to do it," Daignault said.
Now sitting alone in first place, the RedHawks are pleased with their record this season.
"It just attests to how hard we work as a team and how well we play together and how well we're gelling," Daignault said. "It's great to be able to prove all the preseason polls wrong."
With the depth and newfound positioning atop the standings, Miami will look for even more players to stand up.
With just six games left in the regular season, Simons knows her team can't rest on its laurels yet.
"I definitely think there's still work to do," Simons. "I think we need to work hard every day. We still have to defeat the opponents that are coming up."
Miami's homestand continues against Buffalo (13-9, 5-5 MAC) and Akron (11-10, 3-7 MAC) at Millett Hall next weekend.