Sara Crandall says she always loved defense as much as offense, so maybe it’s no wonder she’s become such an effective defensive specialist for Div. II Gannon University’s volleyball team.
A junior from Cattaraugus-Little Valley, Crandall has earned a major role on coach Matt Darling’s consistent PSAC power in Erie, Pa. She didn’t win all-conference recognition, but Darling will tell you Crandall was one of the best liberos in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
An occupational therapy major, Crandall earned a spot on the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-District II women’s volleyball first team in November with a 3.93 cumulative grade point average this year.
On the court, Crandall showed steady improvement to help lead Gannon to one of its best seasons during a consistent eight-year run of NCAA DII tournament appearances.
Gannon finished its eighth straight NCAA season at 31-4 last Saturday, Dec. 3, falling in the second round to Edinboro. Gannon had won two matches against Edinboro in the regular season and won the PSAC, but was edged 25-22, 25-22, 25-22 and denied a second-straight Sweet 16 appearance.
“It isn’t ideal how we ended but I really wouldn’t trade anything for just how we did this season,” Crandall told The Press. “It was really special. It was definitely one to remember even aside from volleyball. As a team, we had really awesome chemistry and the whole entire season was just enjoyable. My coach here at Gannon is just incredible.
“(I’m) disappointed that we did finish how we did but still so proud.”
In 34 matches and 118 sets, Crandall had a team-best 574 digs, 4.86 per set. She had 27 digs, one off her season high, in Gannon’s five-set NCAA first round win over Fairmont State Friday.
“My job is serve receive and it’s digging,” Crandall said. “But it’s a big communication role on the court. I have to be loud, I have to be able to communicate in the back row to everyone playing defense.”
An outside hitter throughout her high school career, Crandall was recruited as a libero. At 5-foot-7, she didn’t have the height to be considered for the outside but Crandall clearly adapted well to her new defensive position.
She carved out a big role by her sophomore year, but looking for improvement Darling, a three-time PSAC coach of the year, challenged her to “self-actualize as a libero.”
“I get one of those quizzical looks whenever I make a statement like that but I think throughout the course of the spring, the offseason, she did it,” Darling said. “Now my answer to that question (of her role) is she brings to that position exactly what that position needs to be. She’s got very good first touch, she’s really doing a lot of the service, digging for us, she was great with second contacts whenever she had to set a ball and in many ways she was the heart of our defense.”
That includes some vocal leadership of the Gannon defense.
“Being on the court as a teammate I try my best to always stay positive and be loud and just like my other teammates and I, we all just work really hard to pick each other up,” Crandall said. “Depending on how the game’s going and who’s having a good game and if somebody has an off game, our team’s really good at stepping up and taking the role of picking another teammate up.
“I’m more of a fiery player than a passive player. I feel like people who have watched me play know that. It’s pretty natural for me to try to fire up my teammates.”
Citing her high school career, when Crandall played for her dad, Joe Crandall, at C-LV, Darling said he always thought she had the ability to lead once she earned a role.
“I think it couldn’t have come out if she didn’t have the competence to back it up,” Darling said. “The key for her in terms of leadership was she got to the point where she knew that she was good and then, this opened it up for her to not necessarily be the assertive type of leader telling people what to do but to sort of have the follow-me attitude, which the credibility has to be there for that to happen.”
Freshman Lydia Lukomski from Portville, a defensive specialist and outside hitter, played in seven matches this year and will surely compete for more playing time as a sophomore.
“It was so funny when we found out we’d be playing together,” Crandall said. “We just never imagined. You’re rivals in high school and you don’t even think of the possibility of playing with those girls when you get older. She has been such an awesome contributor to our team, such a hard player, brings and awesome attitude and overall she’s a great teammate and I love seeing her get better and better every single day.”
The Golden Knights thrived in close matches this season. Of Gannon’s four losses, three were in three-set sweeps, including Saturday’s season-ender against Edinboro in the NCAA second round.
Crandall credits Darling — “He did such a great job this year and my whole team is so incredibly thankful to be coached by someone like him. Aside from my dad, he’s one of my favorite coaches.” — and a camaraderie and chemistry unlike any team she’s played with.
“My coach really recruits awesome people,” she said, “not just volleyball players but he recruits and coaches awesome personalities and good people to be around with good hearts and good intentions. That makes a big difference. We have a talented team and we know how to play volleyball but what makes the difference is the fact that we all care so much about the sport and each other.”
Darling takes a practical approach to team chemistry, saying it can help teams but isn’t always necessary. But clearly this team was different.
“Some of the best teams I’ve ever been around hated each other but they all wanted to win so you can put those things aside,” he said. “I think it was definitely a strength for this team, just team chemistry unlike any I’ve seen and far beyond anything that I’ve even seen. It’s not something that I would have said would be necessary but it really gave us an edge. They always fought for each other.”