NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- The No. 3 seeded Iona College Volleyball team took down No. 2 Niagara University in straight sets (25-23, 25-18, 26-24) to earn a chance to compete for the 2017 MAAC title. It's the program's third championship game appearance, and its first since 2010.
The Maroon & Gold's offense began the match centered around its All-MAAC First Team honoree, Claire Archibald. The junior had 11 attack attempts and four kills midway through the first set. Iona called timeout when Niagara eked out to a 19-18 lead. With the score 23-22 in Niagara's favor, a service error committed by the Purples Eagles gave the serve to back to Maroon & Gold and freshman Jamie Smith. The MAAC Rookie of the Year stepped up the the line and delivered two strong serves as Iona closed out with a set one win, 25-23.
Strong serving from freshmen Taylor Cole and Smith pushed the Gaels to an early 7-1 lead in set two. Niagara got to within four but was forced to call timeout when its deficit swelled to 14-8. The respite brought some energy to the Purple Eagles, resulting in Iona head coach Patric Santiago calling timeout when the Maroon & Gold edge dwindled to just two at 19-17.
Coming out of the timeout, Archibald buried her sixth kill of the set to bring momentum back in favor of the Maroon & Gold. Iona closed out set two with a 6-1 run to take a 2-0 lead in the match. The unsung hero of the second set was junior Mia Bonsignore; she played big as the middle blocker, finishing the frame with five kills and three blocks.
Set three began with Iona and Niagara trading points. The Gaels committed back-to-back attack errors and coach Santiago called his first timeout of the set with his team trailing 12-9. The strong back-and-forth play from both teams resumed and the scored remained tight throughout. With the score knotted at 23, Smith put home her eighth kill of the game to give Iona the serve on match point. The Purple Eagles were able to fend defeat off once, but the Maroon & Gold completed the three set sweep, 26-24.
Bonsignore finished with a match-high 18 kills and just two attack errors. She had a hitting percentage of .536 while also leading the match in blocks with five. Archibald registered another double-double with 16 kills and 13 digs. Smith had a team-high 15 digs and junior Emma Rose distributed 43 of Iona's 49 assists.
Entering tonight's match, Iona and Niagara had split the regular season series. The Gaels won in five sets at the Hynes Center, and fell in four at the Gallagher Center. On a neutral court, it was the Gaels who came out on top and earned a chance to compete for the MAAC Championship on Sunday afternoon.
The Gaels and Stags compete for the conference title tomorrow, Sunday, Nov. 19 at 2 p.m. The match is being played at Alumni Hall on the campus of Fairfield University, and it can be watched live on ESPN3 or WATCHESPN.