Another Year, Another Early Exit: Marist Falls to Iona in Round One

In a five-set loss to Iona, Marist volleyball swiftly fell out of the 2023 MAAC Conference Tournament in their first match, for the third consecutive year. 

No. 3 seeded Marist entered as the favorite against the No. 6 seeded Gaels, but Iona was unphased by the Red Foxes, a team in whom they took down less than a month ago at home.

Marist’s top hitters came to play on their biggest stage of the season thus far, as three Red Foxes recorded 20-plus kills. Senior outside hitter and MAAC Player of the Year Sasha van der Merwe tallied 28, senior outside hitter Jordan Newblatt followed with 21, and redshirt junior outside hitter Gabriella Heimbauer finished with 20.

The Red Foxes’ 74 kills outpaced Iona’s 58, but the Gaels played a gritty brand of volleyball, holding Marist to a .195 hitting percentage. Junior setter Claire Lewis assisted on 63 of the Marist kills, a career best.

Marist struck first on a van der Merwe kill on the game’s first point, but the Gaels took control from there. They took a 2-1 lead, and kept the Red Foxes at a safe distance, leading 17-14. From there, the Red Foxes won eight straight points with freshman setter Kaitlyn Owens at the service line. Of the eight points, four came on errors from the Gaels, making the Red Foxes’ job much easier.

Though it seemed the Red Foxes finally broke through to take control, Iona answered right back with a run of their own. The Gaels won eight of the final nine points, gaining a crucial first-set victory.

The Marist defense did its job, holding the Gaels to a .089 hitting percentage. Their issues arose in serve receive, where Iona served for five aces, in addition to a plethora of tough serves that forced inaccurate passes from the Marist side.

Riding the momentum of their late come-from-behind win, Iona grabbed the early advantage. Despite trailing 6-2 following a blown lead in the first set, the Red Foxes did not back down. 

Another lengthy run put them back out front, this time coming with Lewis at the service line, where she served for an untouched ace. In a six-point stretch that saw Marist go from down three to up three, van der Merwe and Heimbauer nailed two kills. Of Marist’s 17 kills in the set, 13 came from the duo of van der Merwe and Heimbauer.

This time Marist did not give up the lead, but by no means did they cruise to the finish line. Just two points away from tying the match up at one set apiece, the Red Foxes held a six-point advantage. The Gaels won six of the next seven points, nearly stunning Marist before a van der Merwe swing finally clinched a second-set victory. 

Marist head coach Sean Byron used his first timeout early in the set, while Marist trailed 7-4. The early timeout proved effective, as Marist took off from there. The offense appeared consistent, swinging for 17 kills at a .227 clip. Newblatt took over the set late, finding the floor three times in a four-point span to put Marist up 21-14.

Iona attempted to mount another late set comeback, inching the deficit two points, at 23-21. van der Merwe’s eighth kill of the set put Marist at set point, and an Iona attack error on the ensuing point gave Marist the ever-so-critical third-set victory.

The fourth set showcased an exciting back-and-forth battle that saw the Gaels in the driver’s seat as the set dwindled. Marist had no answer for the Iona attack, who converted at a .275 rate. 

The Gaels leaned on sophomore outside hitter Mackenzie Wiggins, who scored five of the Gaels’ 15 kills in the set. Wiggins was the driving factor of the Iona offense all match, leading the team with 23 kills. No other Gael reached double digits.

With the fifth set crowning the victor at 15 points, every point became crucial. Following a back-and-forth start, Iona claimed command, taking a 13-7 advantage. The lead proved insurmountable, despite Marist’s best attempt. 

Led by three kills from Newblatt, Marist brought the deficit to just two points at 14-12. Iona clinched their advancement on a deep tip from a senior middle blocker Jen Soto that fell untouched in the back corner of Marist’s side.

When the ball met the floor, it marked another premature exit in MAAC Tournament play for the Red Foxes, their third straight to a worse-seeded opponent. 

Looking forward to next season, there are plenty of questions to be answered. Marist’s team this past season relied on its seniors, who all still have one final year of eligibility due to COVID-19’s abbreviation of their freshman season. 

In the Sean Byron era, the Red Foxes have been a consistent force in regular season play, but a switch flips once postseason play begins. Marist’s last win in the MAAC Tournament came in 2019, Byron’s first year at the helm. 

Since, they have made the playoffs as the third or second seed in each of the past three years. Each season culminated in the same result: a loss in their first match.

It remains to be seen what Marist’s roster will look like next year, and more importantly, if they can finally get over the hump and win a playoff game for the first time since 2019.

Edited by Dan Aulbach

Photo via Jaylen Rizzo

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