Around a month ago, the Marist volleyball season ended in shocking fashion, getting swept in the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament by a seventh-seeded Rider team that played arguably the best it had played all season. The Red Foxes were the second seed.
Marist now must wait patiently to change their narrative once again after two consecutive first-round playoff exits and the loss of the longest-tenured captains in program history, McKinley Fox and Morgan Owens.
So what now? To start, it’s important to intake the details of the shocking loss to the Broncs.
“The lowest hitting percentage of anybody on that team [Rider] was 0.370,” said head coach Sean Byron. “They had two kids with hitting percentages over .500. I was talking to Jeff [Rotundo, Rider’s head coach] the day after their victory and asked him what he was telling his squad during the game. He said, ‘During our timeouts, we had to pretend like we’re talking about something because I don’t want to wreck the vibe right now,’ They just were kind of in the zone.”
The Broncs were in the zone for all three sets. The round before, Rider had beaten Manhattan College in four sets. Up against second-seeded Marist, Rider was the underdog in the next round.
“They would have beaten anybody except for about three teams in the country,” said Byron.
A major claim, but not all that far-fetched. Marist had played Rider twice earlier in the year. The first game saw the Red Foxes make a major comeback, rallying back from two sets down to get a MAAC road win.
Marist was resilient and relied on the sheer power of their outside attack to get the best of the Broncs. Sasha van der Merwe paced the team with 17 kills while Gabby Heller and Jordan Newblatt finished with 14 kills a piece. After poor hits in the first two sets, the three stayed composed, Van der Merwe put up seven of her kills in that third set, and the offense refreshed.
The second match against Rider in McCann felt like business as usual for the Red Foxes. The penultimate home game of the season showed that the Red Foxes played every part of their game well; the setting, passing, digging, and execution on attack were consistent and clean for three of four sets.
In their playoff game against Rider, the offense wasn’t nearly as effective. Sure– it doesn’t help that Rider wowed with their execution, but the Red Fox offense failed to give themselves opportunities on kill setups.
“In retrospect, I think we tried to get maybe a little too tactical with it,” said Byron. “Instead of trying to hit balls down the line and around the block, instead try to take a page out of the Rider book and blast it at hands and hope. It’s like in baseball, you tell batters just to make contact and hit the ball, and that is what’s going to get you base hits.”
When all is said and done, separating the success of the Red Foxes in the regular season with another crushing playoff loss is not a simple thing to do. It’s one thing to play well in the middle of the season. Executing their backs to the wall is a completely different animal.
Marist volleyball still needs to change its playoff image and build on the continued regular season success.
In terms of setup for next season, Byron feels confident the program still left off in a good spot.
“I will certainly look at it in terms of a playoff match that you want to win,” said Byron. “But I think in the grand scheme of things the program’s made an uptick. From my first year here we were in fourth to now this year being in second. Hopefully, that continues to trend upward and we win the league next year.”
Byron’s focus is set on the future, but what does that entail?
To start, finding new leadership on the roster. With Fox and Owens graduating, Byron already has selected van der Merwe, Newblatt, and Vanessa Zolg to be the official captains for the 2023 campaign.
All three have been members of the Red Foxes for their entire collegiate careers. Better yet, both van der Merwe and Newblatt have expressed plans to use their fifth year of eligibility, giving Marist volleyball not just two of the strongest outside weapons in the MAAC, but solidified leadership for the program moving forward.
“I think it helps our depth at the top with experienced kids, and I think that they’re great role models,” said coach Byron.
With a trio of captains and Newblatt and van der Merwe looking to be the staples of this Marist team, newcomers and returning players will have to fill some roles going forward. Marist’s third attacker, Gabrielle Heller, was only on the team for one year after transferring in on her last year of eligibility as a graduate student.
Byron believes that his program is an attractive spot for athletes looking to transfer for their final year of eligibility, as soon the extra year provided by the NCAA for COVID forgiveness will end with the class of 2020 athletes.
“I think that the grad students in the transfer portal ask questions like, ‘Hey, what’s a practice like?’” said Byron. “We’ve been well-planned, we stat every practice, we’re videoing every practice, we put it on a link where you can watch your practice video. I feel good about the care that we’re giving our student-athletes, and that becomes an easy sell for the grad students.”
Much like Heller, Byron thinks that graduate transfers bring a level of maturity that helps with the leadership of the team, despite any naivety to the program. It’s safe to say Byron will be looking for new members of the Red Fox squad that can mesh into the team with said maturity.
Up-and-coming members of the squad will be tasked to fill new roles, but not unfamiliar ones. Sophomore setter Claire Lewis, who usually played one or two sets throughout the year, could be Marist’s option for starting setter. When Marist played Manhattan late in the season, Lewis put up a season-high 28 assists, showing her promise as a setter for the Red Foxes.
“I’d like to see her make some moves and kind of take over as her team,” said Byron.
Other promising step-ups include Alyssa White, who Byron has previously mentioned as making a huge improvement and is one of the purest athletic talents on the team. White over the last half of the season got more involved with the offense platooning with future captain Vanessa Zolg in the middle.
In the portal, with its various comings and goings, Byron is looking to improve the roster, specifically looking for increasing height in positions. Though boasting a large offensive prowess other teams in the MAAC like Fairfield have rosters with lots of size in the front of the net, allowing for more blocks per set.
“When you look at them across the net, you’re looking at somebody that has that altitude. They may not be as agile or volleyball acumen, but the physicality is really something that we’re looking for,” said Byron.
And so, the Red Foxes sit patiently waiting to prove the strength of their program as they make new acquisitions and formulate their returning players into the system. While the playoff result will certainly sting synonymously from the loss the year before in the first round, the improvement of the program is undeniable in the regular season. It’s just a matter of getting to the next step.
Edited by Andrew Hard
Photo from Marist Athletics