Brian T. Chan, Sports Editor

Sophomore outside hitter Noelle Fanella fell one dig short of a double-double in last year’s loss to the VCU Rams in Richmond, but she still had a solid 11-kill performance. On Friday night, Fanella topped last year’s performance with a career-high 18 kills as she helped the women’s volleyball team (13-5, 2-1) win its conference home opener against the Rams (12-6, 1-1) in a five-set thriller (25-21, 25-27, 25-23, 21-25, 15-11).

Mason returned to the RAC after playing its last 10 games on the road and opened conference play with a 1-1 record. The team opened the first set with an 8-3 lead and played at ease before taking the first game, 25-21.

The Rams came as close as three points when they cut the lead to 24-21, but Mason was able to hold on as middle blockers and opposite hitters, senior Laura Turner and junior Holly Goode, recorded a set-ending block.

“[Winning the first set] was very important because we knew VCU was going to have a very good team, so we wanted to try to set the pace early,” said Head Coach Pat Kendrick.

The team again gained the early advantage by taking the first three points in the second set, but the Rams responded and made it tough on Mason to pull away again. Down 21-18, Mason went on a 5-1 run to take their first lead since leading 6-5 earlier in the second set. Fanella played a huge part in the rally, recording three kills during the run.

Mason had set point at 24-23, but a service error from sophomore libero Katrina Boryc proved to be costly. Even though Mason had another shot at going ahead by two sets, the Rams scored the three final points to provide a contest between the Colonial Athletic Association rivals. Rather than lament over the tough second-set loss, the team went into the intermission to make adjustments.

Mason shot right out of the gate in the third set, winning seven of the first nine points. Goode recorded three kills in that span. Both teams traded points, and neither team would hold a two-point advantage until Mason took a 24-22 lead late in the third set. As the Rams momentarily prevented Mason from taking the set, Goode finished it off with her ninth kill of the match.

“It was extremely vital [to win the third set] because it depends on who is up two games, so we obviously needed to stay in the contest and put more pressure on them,” said Fanella.

The fourth set was in Mason’s favor in the beginning, but the Rams scorched Mason by scoring points in bunches. As Mason tried to stabilize their opponents, the Rams kept on putting themselves in a position to win the set. The Rams forced a fifth set by winning the fourth set, 25-21.

Mason took advantage of the numerous of errors from Rams outside hitter Michala Kvapilova in the fifth set, and even though it was no cakewalk, Mason sensed a victory within their reach.

The team built a comfortable 12-5 lead, but the Rams cut the deficit to 13-11, but Mason staved off another rally as sophomore middle blocker Kelsey Bohman and junior setter Fernanda Bartels recorded the game-ending block.

Fanella, who matched her career high in kills twice this season, notched a new career high with 18 kills and added 10 digs for her first double-double this season. Last year, she finished third on the team with 163 kills.

Freshman libero Koala Matsuoka, who recorded 14 digs, made a number of game-saving plays in the latter part of the match by sacrificing her body to keep the ball in play.

“It’s a big morale booster when somebody just throws their body at the ball and gets it up, and it kind of deflates the other side when their best hit is getting dug,” said Kendrick. “I think [Matsuoka] helped us out, aside from getting the dig up, but I think of it as a morale booster on our side that no ball was too hard to be dug and we were going to keep our hopes up no matter what.”

On the opposing side, Kvapilova led all players with 19 kills and also recorded 14 digs. The Rams were unable to withstand Mason’s sudden outburst towards the end of the match.

“It’s really exciting to win a five-set match because it’s a lot of emotion and a lot of physical exertion in a five-set [match]. In the fourth set, we should have won, so we went into the huddle and we said, ‘Look, this is our set, the fifth set, so let’s take it,’” said Turner.

Last year, Mason went 1-4 when the match went into five sets, but this season, the team reversed their five-set record, winning their fourth on Friday night.

For Mason, who battled through a tough season last year, the script writes itself in this season’s major turnaround. The fifth set, which will now be known as Act V, is a perfect ending for the women’s volleyball team as they close out matches in dramatic fashion.