At full strength, with an almost complete returning cast of starters, the MAAC will need to watch out for Marist volleyball.
In a season cut short after finishing third in the standings, the team isn’t taking an early playoff loss for an answer this year.
“We finished with a winning record, but that doesn’t mean anything when you look at the final result,” said Jordan Newblatt ‘23.
It’s hard to track the success of the squad last year without Newblatt.
Newblatt was the team leader in kills last year, but more importantly, she set a program record for kills (twice) in back-to-back matches during the 2021 season. Behind only returning graduate student Morgan Owens in digs, Newblatt returns for her third season on the Red Foxes along with 14 other returning players from the previous season.
In a season with many injuries sprinkled into the roster, Newblatt was the most consistent pin hitter for the team– before suffering a concussion at the end of the regular season– and was still able to perform in the quarterfinal loss against Quinnipiac last fall.
Head coach Sean Byron is returning for his fourth season at the helm. After finishing 12-6 last year, he’s delivered the second winning season of his three years as head coach (with 2020 having a condensed season of four games). With a majority of his roster being returning talent, Byron is optimistic about picking up things where they left off, and going beyond expectations.
“I think we’re just more balanced,” said Byron. “We didn’t have a starting lineup last year at all because everyone was hurt. As soon as we got somebody back, somebody else got hurt. We were very one-dimensional. Now, we can set the left side with Gabby [Heller] and Jordan, we can set the right side with Sasha [Van der Merwe]. The middles are a year older and better.”
Byron mentioned the left side being a joint effort from Newblatt and Gabrielle Heller, who herself has had her own fair share of experience.
Heller walked onto Washington State as a redshirt freshman and played in 10 matches of Pac-12 volleyball, a top 3 conference in the country for the sport. The California native transferred to Loyola Marymount, appearing in 27 matches as an outside player.
When she hit the playing scene for the Red Foxes, she made her impact known, amassing 97 kills and matching Newblatt during pre-conference play. Heller led the team in kills in their most recent match against the University of Albany.
“She adds a lot of maturity when you have a 23-year-old graduate student that comes in, that’s been around and has played at a high level,” said Coach Byron.
The two right-left hitters are complementing a pre-conference standout in the offense and MAAC leader in kills, kills per set, and points per set. Junior Sasha van der Merwe was third on the team last year in kills and totaled 193 digs, 31 blocks, and 17 service aces despite suffering an ankle injury against Seton Hall last September. Van Der Merwe received MAAC Player of the Week for her performance in the URI invite, racking up 31 kills in the match against URI, tying Newblatt’s second-highest single-match total.
“When I came back, I was still getting my groove back by the end of the season, but I wasn’t playing to my best,” said van der Merwe. “I’m excited to be a more integral part of this team this year. With some new players and Gabby, we have a different look than last year but we have a great season ahead.”
Van der Merwe credits the offensive production to the efficiency of their setters and diggers, who provide the behind-the-scenes work to the stats sheet.
“We can’t get those kills without a set, and McKinley [Fox] can’t get those sets without a dig. Our passes and our setups are a big part of that, and different players will draw blockers, who don’t know where to go because we have a pretty strong offense. I think we all kind of feed into each other on that,” said van der Merwe.
Feeding into the offensive machine is Second Team All-MAAC graduate student McKinley Fox, who van der Merwe credited for their attack capabilities. Fox was credited with a whopping 1,096 assists last year and has 330 on the season so far, a dominant and efficient setup piece for the offense.
“Every week, it just seems like our balance has been really good,” said Byron. “When we pass in our system, I think our offensive numbers are in the top 10 in the country. When we don’t, we can be very mediocre against some teams in the MAAC. We have three [offensive] options, and we don’t need all three of them to be good every night. That’s where we are at in terms of offense; there’s a lot of balance in it.”
Marist is also welcoming three incoming freshmen talents into the mix. Two of the freshmen are joining the Red Foxes while still recovering from injuries. Sofi Creek, an outside hitter from Georgia who Byron hopes will become an “impact player” is recovering from meniscus surgery and will miss the 2022 season. Mikayla Keefer, a 6-foot-1 middle blocker from Michigan, will be rehabbing from a torn ACL for most of the season with a chance to see some action in the late second half.
While the two freshmen will not make an immediate impact, freshman Morgan Munro has already seen some playing time in non-conference play and has an opportunity to make an impact off the bench this season as a right side.
“She’s been fabulous,” said Byron. “She’s a great kid and just a good volleyball player. A great vision kid and a great teammate.”
With the heavy veteran presence this season – even for the newcomers – the Red Foxes have found their footing early on in the season, sweeping their opening series against Georgia State in the GSU invitational and winning against Belmont. Their most recent win came against Long Island University in the University of Rhode Island invite, sweeping the sharks in three sets. Both Newblatt and van der Merwe led with 13 kills apiece, and Gabrielle Heller contributed with nine. Van der Merwe also had three blocks, tying with 2021 blocks leader Vanessa Zolg, the starting middle blocker for the Red Foxes.
Marist has certainly gotten their fair share of challenging opponents as well, including two ACC matchups against Virginia Tech and Boston College, as well as an SEC opponent, Auburn. Most recently, Marist put up a fight in a match against Boston College but was unable to turn a set into a win, losing in three straight. However, Byron feels like the team this year is playing with a different energy than years before, allowing them to stay competitive with higher-ranked teams.
“I think that we’re in a different plane than we have been in terms of the level we’re playing at,” said Byron. “We played poorly in game one, and in game two we started to come around. You can’t knock the ball back against an ACC team and expect them just to give it back to you or make a mistake. You have to be physical; you hit the ball hard, serve the ball hard with pace and velocity and that’s what we’ve been talking about all week.”
“I think in that game, the idea of sticking together as a team is most important,” said van der Merwe. “We were a little bit shell shocked. But in our last set, we were really close. Knowing we have the capabilities to compete with an undefeated ACC team, we need to make sure we focus on our side and make sure we focus on sticking together, being one of the most team-centered sports you can play.
After a tough loss in four close sets to the University of Albany, the Red Foxes currently sit at 4-6 entering their season opener on September 16th at the McCann Center. Despite the losing record, the Red Foxes stayed competitive against their non-conference opponents and look to show the same prowess they had against Manhattan last year, sweeping them twice. With a majority of returning players, Marist will look to execute the same approach they had against the Jaspers last season.
As far as MAAC opponents go, Fairfield is the team to beat this year as the defending champions go. But for the Red Foxes, the Quinnipiac loss still stings. A team that was sixth in the MAAC defeated Marist in five sets. Newblatt hopes for a complete bounce-back performance against the Bobcats.
“We want to go out and beat them three both times,” said Newblatt. “Just to prove a point that we lost last year but that’s not who we were and we’ve been working really hard to get better.”
The home opener this season comes with a new sense of excitement distinct from years past. Later in the day after the home opener, Newblatt’s brother, Stew Newblatt, a senior at Columbia University, gets ready to face off against Marist football, lining up on the o-line for Columbia. It is rare for Marist and Columbia to play – let alone at Tenney Stadium for a night game – on the same day Newblatt suits up for Marist.
“My parents will be here to support me and then after I can go and support my brother, ” said Newblatt. “Obviously I want Marist to win, but it’s also my brother’s senior year so it’ll be a fun day for everyone.”
For Byron, Saturday’s home opener will be a testament to the playoff loss against Quinnipiac last year, explaining the similarities in their play style.
“Manhattan has a player from Siena last year that took 40% of all of our offense last year. So being able to deal with one [player] and staying balanced like we have been playing, and I think we’ll be in a good spot.
Marist currently sits at third in the MAAC entering conference play, synonymous with their finish last year in the standings. As far as the game plan goes; they are healthy, confident, and certainly skilled on both sides of the ball with their offensive efficiency being a headline for the 2022 squad.
With a balanced and adept offense, efficient setters and diggers, and a fire from the Quinnipiac loss that ignites the team chemistry into a confident playstyle, there’s no reason why the Red Foxes can’t redeem themselves with a trip to Orlando.
Edited by Andrew Hard
Photo from Marist Athletics