Marist volleyball was unable to keep up with reigning MAAC champion Fairfield, losing in three straight sets 28-26, 25-18, and 25-14.
The Fairfield Stags and Marist Red Foxes entered this highly anticipated match ranked first and second in the MAAC standings respectively.
Last year, the Stags swept the Red Foxes twice in the two matches they played, neither of which were as close as the match today.
Despite the high contest, there was a clear elephant in the room between the two teams. Returning to the Stags in her senior year is MAAC Player of the Year, KJ Johnson. Johnson won MAAC Player of the Week four times last year and propelled the stags to the NCAA tournament after an MVP performance in the finals against Rider. Johnson had the strongest individual performance of any player today, despite Marist kills leader Sasha Van der merwe finishing with 15 kills.
Marist appeared at full strength after their win against Iona, completing their second sweep of the prior weekend. However, their kills leader of that match and attack centerpiece Jordan Newblatt was not present in the arena for warmups and came out of the locker room out of game uniform. She did not play for undisclosed reasons.
Unfortunately, this is an important weekend looking ahead at Marist’s schedule, playing Quinnipiac before heading on the road next weekend, the team that eliminated the Red Foxes from the MAAC Tournament last year. Getting the start in Newblatt’s absence today was sophomore Jillian Hanna, traditionally a libero, playing on the outside of the backcourt.
Marist got off the quick start against the reigning MAAC champs and didn’t appear to miss a beat on offense, with kills from the sophomore Hanna as well as McKinley Fox and Sasha van der Merwe. However, Marist had trouble returning the Stags serves and keeping the set back and forth, keeping the match close and energy rampant between two teams.
A quiet start from the MAAC Player of the Year faded suddenly and led the offense into strings of points for the Stags. Most notably, the Stags gave Marist trouble in their clean offensive play with a consistent ability to block Marist kill attempts, led by middle blocker Sabria Cooper, a transfer from VCU to the Stags this year, who was automatic in her block efforts today.
After the media timeout, the Stags kept it close with a second service ace from Johnson. In an incredible effort, Fairfield started to get confused by Marist’s offense and simply overpowered the Stags highlighted by two consecutive aces from Jaden Reasor, capping off five straight points. They failed to take advantage of the run when blocker Cooper managed to put kills in the right spots, causing head coach Sean Byron to call two timeouts late at the end of the first set, 23-23.
The Stags did not hold back with the assertion of the block attempts, as points tended to become a result of Marist attacks. As points went back-and-forth, those blocks became the difference maker capped off by a kill from Johnson giving the Stags the first set. This set was easily the closest the Red Foxes have been to besting the Stags in the last two seasons.
Fairfield continued to completely inhibit Marist attacks with another block by Cooper and three consecutive blocks in the same point on three admirable Marist kill attempts. The Stags took an early lead and clearly took a stab at Marist’s game plan leaving them befuddled with a seven point gap of the lead. Marist’s defense was on point after a great dig out of bounds from Hanna and a kill from Gabby Heller.
With the serve in the hands of captain McKinley Fox, she created opportunities for Marist with two aces followed by kills from Heller, filling the absence of their three-headed attack and eclipsing the lead on the Stags, 15-14.
The Red Fox bench provided the energy as the set became winnable and a pure battle between the top two teams in the MAAC.
Fairfield wasn’t phased, evidently. The team amassed an 8-1 run, a majority of the points on attack errors from the Red Foxes. While Marist oftentimes this year has struggled in the later halves of sets, they have been able to bounce back and hold their focus. This set, that confidence looked dazed.
Although the match showed a heavy advantage for Fairfield going into the second set, the third set was close to start, including five kills from van der Merwe and three for Vanessa Zolg. Limiting errors became a problem, and the Fairfield attack became too much for the team to bear.
In a swift effort, the Red Foxes couldn’t keep up with the performance of KJ Johnson, who finished with a team high 12 kills and six blocks. Four players on Fairfield finished the contest with multiple blocks, and Marist’s offense was stagnant past their solid run in the second set.
The absence of Newblatt didn’t seem detrimental until halfway through the match; Marist was unable to scramble defenders on attacks and kept most of their attention on van der Merwe and Gabby Heller for the match. Heller finished with 7 kills in the three sets, but attack errors ran up the stat sheet for all Marist attackers due to Fairfield’s defense.
Even though Marist got swept, this is the first time this season they couldn’t run their traditional offensive mix and were still competitive against the top team in the MAAC.
Playing a 1-8 Quinnipiac tomorrow afternoon, the Red Foxes should be able to rebound and enter their road trip next weekend with a win.
Edited by Andrew Hard
Photo from Marist Athletics