Marist women’s volleyball has ranked at the top of the MAAC Preseason Coaches Poll for the first time since 2014, a year that saw the team reach the conference championship game. While the honor is impressive, the Red Foxes have bigger accomplishments in mind.
“We’re trying to be number one at the end of the season,” head coach Sean Byron said.
Marist, who was eliminated in round one of the MAAC tournament in each of the past two seasons, have their sights set on a deeper postseason run this time around.
Marist’s preseason recognition was highlighted by Sasha van der Merwe taking home the honor of Preseason Player of the Year in the MAAC. The recognition is not new for van der Merwe, who received a lengthy list of awards and honors at the end of last season. She can now add “team captain” to the list.
“She’s gone from just being the best player in the gym to being the best leader in the gym too,” Byron said.
Other captains include Vanessa Zolg and Jordan Newblatt. Newblatt was named to the Preseason All-MAAC team alongside van der Merwe.
What sets this Marist team apart from years prior will be the depth. Last year, the offense’s success relied mostly on Newblatt and van der Merwe, as well as contributions from Gabrielle Heller, a graduate senior who made the most of her one year at Marist.
“I think the middles Alyssa [White] and Vanessa [Zolg] have been very good in the preseason,” Byron said. “We’ve got four options offensively all the time. We’re really deep at just about every position.”
White led the Red Foxes in blocks last year as a sophomore and is now anticipated to have a more prominent role in the offense this season.
After graduating three seniors and losing a few younger athletes to the transfer portal, Marist will welcome eight freshmen and one transfer student to Poughkeepsie for this season. Lillian Thomas, who spent the previous four years at Iona, arrived in January which allowed her to get to know her new coaches and teammates a semester in advance.
As for the eight freshmen, many have made a name for themselves during preseason camp. Coach Byron had high praise for Katherine Johnson, who he expects to open the season as the starting libero. “She’s just an athletic kid, makes plays, and has been a difference maker.”
Johnson may not be the only freshman who enters the season as a starter. “Cecilia (CC) Potter-Pessoa has been really close in terms of being a DS (defensive specialist),” Byron said.
Outside hitter Emi Yakushev has also turned heads so far in camp. “She might be the highest jumper that we’ve got,” Byron said. “When she starts to get the physicality that some of the other kids have she’s going to be pretty dangerous.”
The freshmen have had a unique experience so far thanks to new assistant coach McKinley Fox. After using her fifth year of eligibility last year, Fox was brought onto the staff for this season as she pursues her MBA at Marist. The former captain provides a different perspective from the other coaches, as it was just last year that she was the team’s starting setter
“I think the young players really appreciate her insight because she’s been there,” Byron said. Fox has been key in guiding the freshman class through the preseason camp. Practicing with and getting to know an entire new team could be intimidating at first, but Fox has been a reassuring presence that everything will be okay.
Marist opens the season on the road for the next three weekends, starting in Nashville Tennessee, for the Tennessee Classic. This weekend, the Red Foxes will play three games in two days, against Texas State University, UT Martin, and the University of Tennessee.
Head coach Sean Byron called it “the most competitive schedule Marist has ever had,” but this was by design, as he pointed to the success that Marist’s softball team had last year. “If you look back at what softball did last spring, it’s the same thing,” Byron said.
After challenging themselves with a very difficult out-of-conference schedule, the softball team was battle-tested when conference play rolled around. The Red Foxes earned the three seed in the MAAC tournament, where they took home their first conference championship since 2016.
Marist volleyball will then travel to the nation’s capital for the American Invite in Washington, DC. However, the highlight of the out-of-conference schedule comes a week later when the Red Foxes travel to Los Angeles for the Trojan Invitational.
There, they will face off against San Diego, the University of Southern California (USC), and UC Davis. In AVCA’s preseason rankings, San Diego was placed 13th, while USC came in at 22nd.
“It’s definitely a grind,” Byron said.
Marist is hoping these matches against some of the nation’s top teams will pay dividends during the MAAC regular and postseason.
With two first-round exits from the MAAC tournament in the past two years, Marist will look to buck this recent trend. In 2021, the Red Foxes exceeded their expectations and captured the third seed in the tournament, where they lost a five-set match to Quinnipiac.
After finishing MAAC play with a 14-4 record in 2022, Marist looked primed for a run at the conference title. They were upset by Rider in straight sets, a team they beat twice in the regular season (3-2 and 3-1).
Coach Byron had high praise for Rider, saying they “could have competed with Wisconsin and Texas.” Rider was clicking on all cylinders, ending a promising season for the Red Foxes.
Marist volleyball is still looking for their first MAAC Championship title and the automatic bid to the national tournament that comes along with it. Expectations are high in Poughkeepsie, following the growth of the program in the previous few seasons.
With an experienced, balanced, and deep team, this team has firepower that gets Marist past the first round of the playoffs, potentially towards its first appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Edited by Dan Aulbach and Luke Sassa
Photo Credit: Kira Crutcher