There’s no doubt Hal Clifton felt great excitement when he landed his first Division-I volleyball head coaching job, taking over at North Carolina A&T in 2011.
But it’s possible his mood took a bit of a hit when he sat down with his first roster and realized he had a pretty thin bench, as in zero. The Aggies had six players total and were in serious improvisation mode, as Clifton took the job in August. That campaign was a rough ride (2-27 overall), but Clifton survived the tumult and has been rewarded over time, with NC A&T claiming its first-ever postseason berth in the 2019 National Invitational Volleyball Championship.
The Aggies (16-14) will play another team new to the postseason in Troy (22-9); their match is 4 p.m. ET on Friday at host school Georgia Tech.
“It was crazy. We held open tryouts to get a few more bodies and ended up with nine players to get through the season,” Clifton said, “and we were able to recruit a pretty good starting class for 2012, getting them to buy into the vision that the A&T program was going to get to. That was the springboard; lo and behold we were able to compete for a (MEAC) conference championship last year and made the NIVC this year.”
NC A&T had serious designs on winning the MEAC tournament this year, or at least getting to the final and a tasty rematch with Howard, but the Aggies fell short in five sets to Morgan State. After going 13-1 in conference play, that setback stung, but Clifton said the bigger picture and the chance to feel postseason energy helped blunt the frustration.
“The NIVC hits at a great time for our program. We’re super excited, the first time in postseason play, and it’s great to get another first for the program,” Clifton said. “They hurt for a few days after (the Morgan State loss); the team really wanted a rematch against Howard like last year. We took a couple days off, had some conversations, and they got back in the gym. They were excited, full of energy and ready to compete. It’s another opportunity to play and for the seniors to wear the jersey. The vibe has been high in the gym.”
NC A&T has a nice mix of younger players on the roster, with three players having more than 300 kills to go with a defense that can muscle up at the net. One player has a particularly interesting resume – junior Edie Brewer earned co-player of the year honors in the MEAC after ringing up 313 kills and 643 assists. Her ability to affect any given match in multiple ways (she also leads the team in aces) can be very taxing on the opposition.
“She’s such a joy to coach and be around. There are kids like this that only come around once in a while. She grew up with the game, her mom coached and played, and she just knows the game at a different level,” Clifton said. “She sees the court from different angles and perspectives, where to hit and set, and the last couple years she’s worked really hard at the setter position, learning the game and studying opponents and looking for weaknesses. She’s a special kid, and we’re very fortunate to have her here. She does things you can’t coach, and she does a lot of things at a very high level … and she’s very hungry to win.”
Brewer was second in the NCAA this year in triple-doubles with eight and came very close to a quadruple-double in a five-set win over Coppin State with 15 kills, 23 assists, 10 digs and eight blocks. She’s the ideal Swiss-Army-knife-option for Clifton, who hoped for and got a more diverse and potent offense in 2019.
“We knew after last year that Courteney Pitt was leading the league in kills per set, taking a tremendous amount of swings for us, and you know that after a while you can only ride that horse so long. Defenses set up and blocks set up … being able to balance the offense has taken a lot of pressure off Courteney (375 kills) and allowed her to play,” he said. “Fatima (Shabazz, 301 kills) on the right side has done a phenomenal job with her willingness to move to (that position) and to compete, such a physical kid. The other team’s defense gets spread out, and we try to make sure no one gets keyed on. If a player is struggling, there’s someone else who can step in.”
Being very prepared for the MEAC schedule probably wouldn’t have happened if not for some key tests early in the year. The Aggies went 0-3 at the UNC Wilmington tourney but ended up wiser for the experience; there were also two huge five-set victories in early October versus North Carolina Central and Coppin State.
“The UNC Wilmington tournament was a big change for us. Playing Western Carolina and Drake, pushing those to five-set matches … we didn’t win, but it gave the kids the confidence that they could compete at a different level than the MEAC or against other HBCU’s,” Clifton said. “That propelled them. Those North Carolina Central and Coppin State matches were huge from a mental aspect. The resilience to be able to pull out two five-set matches early in the season gave us confidence in how far we can be pushed and bend but not break. That was high-tension stuff; that led the players to see that as long as we stay confident and cool-headed, we can compete.”