Oh yeah, they’re back.
Marist’s best team out of all the fall sports this season has found itself in a similar position as last year’s iteration. After high praise and a multitude of returning starters, Marist volleyball have found themselves in an even better position than their third-ranked seeding last year after sweeping the likes of the Buffalo-region MAAC teams: Niagara and Canisius.
The Red Foxes sit at 14-4 (two more wins than last season), and with an improved seeding sit opposite of nearly undefeated Fairfield on the other side of the bracket waiting for their first opponent on the Walt Disney World complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
For head coach Sean Byron, who has brought three winning seasons in his first four years, the “Disney” scene will be a fresh encounter, as the MAAC has not gone to host their playoffs at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex since 2018. The new scene brings new responsibilities; the team had a little over 24 hours between their Buffalo road trip and the venture down south.
“It adds a lot of factors into a championship,” said coach Byron. “There’s a lot of moving parts that come in; we’re on the road for five straight days, we’re gonna play three straight matches back-to-back, and you’re not going to get a home court advantage from anyone.”
While in a familiar – even better – spot in the standings, the MAAC table has shifted to make for an interesting playoff competition.
Whereas Fairfield, Rider, and Marist stood out as the top three teams entering the tournament, the Rider Broncs have gone through a large program shift, dropping them from 2nd to 5th, including losing All-MAAC First Team middle blocker Nicole Legg.
Both Iona and Siena climbed the ladder this year to give themselves first-round byes, with Iona shooting up to an impressive third seed ranking with help from multi-time MAAC Libero of the Week, Hope Matschiner.
Although they beat all but one of their MAAC opponents, the competition is tougher for the Red Foxes. Marist has four losses on the year – each one being to the other top four teams in the conference.
“I try to look at what it was with each [loss],” said Byron. “I don’t think it’s been us having an offensive or defensive breakdown. It’s been something different every time, and just one single factor. But if we handle the ball well enough and deal with our offense, we should be fine. And if our offense isn’t fine, then our blocking and our serving needs to be able to stand up.”
The Red Foxes showed their ability to pick each other up in a recent win against Siena. The Red Foxes offensive game with their outside hitters, their strongest aspect, was failing to get kills, but the team amassed one of their best blocking performances of the season with 13, their 2nd highest total.
“I think that’s a testament to where our blocking was. It hasn’t been great all year. But those are the small factors that we’ve put together by the end of the year.”
As far as strengths go, there’s one clear answer: balance. Despite the strength of their season, Marist had just one MAAC Player of the Week during the conference season with Sasha van der Merwe’s 31-kill weekend in Buffalo that secured the Red Foxes’s seed. Marist’s “big three” includes van der Merwe, Jordan Newblatt, and Gabrielle Heller all finishing within the top ten of kills per set and points.
“I think against us, you’ve got to be able to take out two out of the three components,” said Byron. “You have to deal with our left sides, Gabby and Jordan. You have to deal with our two middles [Alyssa White and Vanessa Zolg], and then you gotta deal with Sasha. I think that’s what’s really helped our team, there’s a lot to focus on. We’re not a one trick pony.”
Certainly not a one trick pony, Marist has won its games all year with a different leader in the stat sheet almost every game. Their exceptional offensive improvement coming off a good season last year is a testament to player development. With injuries to numerous key players including van der Merwe, Newblatt, and Madelyn Waumans, not only is the team healthier, but returning members have shown growth. Byron knew his outside hitters would have no issue in their typical starting roles, but the middles have seen full upside growth in the 2022 season.
“Alyssa and Vannessa have really started to develop in terms of offensively, being able to hit the ball and have some pace. Alyssa’s blocking has been really good the last couple of weeks, she’s using her physicality and she’s an unbelievable athlete,” said Byron.
While Marist, a good volleyball team last year, has become more hardened with experience, cohesive play, and dominant matches against top-seeded opponents, two clear-cut obstacles remain in their way.
The first: Marist was the only higher-seeded team to lose their first playoff game. A shocking loss that has always been on the back burner of the team’s playoff hopes as most of the roster experienced that loss. While working with a beaten-down roster, the Red Foxes were sent home by Quinnipiac as the only shocking result in the MAAC Tournament last year.
Marist will have to face either tenth-seeded Manhattan or the seventh-seeded Rider Broncs in their first playoff game scheduled for 4 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17th. While Marist had no trouble with Manhattan, Marist’s matchup on the road against Rider looked bleak at first after an offensive surge from the Broncs.
Marist would then win the next three sets in a row, as if they hadn’t even played the first two sets. One clear improvement in the Red Foxes the entire year; they played point-by-point and set-by-set rather than getting hung up on an early loss of a lead. If all goes well and Marist plays with their balanced identity, their Quinnipiac loss should solely become a reminder of their improvement.
The second obstacle: Fairfield.
Despite the shift in standings, one clear truth remains about the state of MAAC volleyball. Fairfield is the best program in the conference, both on paper and through their reputable presence on the court.
For the entirety of Byron’s tenure, the Fairfield Stags have dominated the regular season, winning two of the three MAAC titles in that span. Fairfield’s KJ Johnson is a contender to win MAAC Player of the Year, second to Marist’s very own van der Merwe in kills per set and kills.
The catch? Marist is the only team to take down the volleyball juggernaut this season.
“When KJ is in the front row, we know they’re gonna set KJ,” said Byron. “It’s pretty predictable because it’s their best option. We’re still going to put two blockers on KJ and let one of their other kids try and beat us, whereas I don’t think you can do that with us.”
Marist beat the Stags in five sets in the middle of the year, their statement win and proof that they and Fairfield are the two best teams in the conference. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the two face off in the highest level– and it would make for some pretty good volleyball.
Despite the obstacles, Marist has shown they can beat the odds. If they get past their first round matchup, they’ll have to face off against Iona or Quinnipiac, one team they’ve lost to in the regular season and one they’ve lost to in the playoffs a year ago. Fairfield most likely waits on the other side, hoping for back-to-back championships in a tougher tournament setting than previous and looking to exact revenge on the Red Foxes.
Their path towards a MAAC Championship isn’t easy, but the stats don’t lie. Sasha van der Merwe has emerged as not only the conference kill leader, but a leader of a three-headed offensive machine on the outside wings with Heller and Newblatt.
Their middles have become formidable options on offense, and a veteran libero presence in Morgan Owens (sixth in conference in digs) and setter presence in McKinley Fox (second in the conference in assists), giving the team a multi-year leadership track record that will bode well against younger teams.
Lastly, this team is consistent. Writing my preview earlier this year, I said there was no reason why this team can’t finish near the top of the conference again, and I think it’s safe to say I was proven right.
“We’ve been pretty good all year about not panicking. And you can watch and you can see a lot of teams spiral, get behind, or they give up a couple points and they can’t recover – not us. We bounce back,” said Byron
Despite playing at the happiest place on earth, it hasn’t been a dream come true for Marist volleyball once reaching the playoffs. This might be a similar roster, but this is not the same team, and something tells me they’re not willing to lose their shot in the first round and onward. There’s no reason why this team can’t be playing volleyball on Saturday.
Marist plays their first game against Manhattan or Rider on Thursday, Nov. 17th, at 4 p.m. at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, available to watch on ESPN+.
Edited by Andrew Hard
Photo from Marist Athletics