Marist rolls into this year’s MAAC Tournament with the conference’s Player of the Year for the first time since 2013, as senior outside hitter Sasha van der Merwe tries to lead the Red Foxes to the promised land.
With another successful regular season in the books, there is reason to believe this can be the year that Marist takes home their first MAAC Championship. Entering the tournament as the third seed, the Red Foxes are a threat to win it all, having defeated all six teams in the tournament on separate occasions.
There are some questions the Red Foxes must answer if they hope to hoist the trophy.
Who does Marist Play?
First, let’s do some housekeeping.
This afternoon, Marist plays their opening match of the 2023 MAAC Tournament against the Iona Gaels. Marist won their first matchup with Iona in early October in a thrilling five-set battle. The Red Foxes won the first two sets, highlighted by a dominant 25-11 win in the second set. Iona did not go down without a fight, winning a neck-and-neck battle in the third set 26-24. They rode the momentum into a fourth-set win and then took a 13-10 lead in the fifth. There, Marist won six out of the next seven points, stealing the set and winning the match.
In the rematch nearly a month ago, things played out differently. Iona controlled the first and second set, winning both 25-18; the Red Foxes bounced back for the third, but the Gaels rebounded quickly to win in four sets and even the series.
What makes the first round so important?
Despite the team playing in each of the last two tournaments, not one player has won a MAAC tournament game on the roster.
In 2021, the Red Foxes played above their projections, earning the third seed and facing off against No. 6 seed Quinnipiac, who went 2-0 against Marist in the regular season. There, they dropped a back-and-forth five-set affair.
The following year, the Red Foxes returned most of their cast and finished the year second in the conference, their highest seeding since 2016. Marist lost their first matchup of the tournament to No. 7 seeded Rider, another team they beat twice in the regular season.
This group is experienced, as nearly all of their rotational players experienced both losses. They also know what it feels like to see a successful regular season get cut short in the blink of an eye.
What can Marist expect after the first round?
The winner of Marist vs. Iona will face last year’s champion, No.2 Quinnipiac.
Looking ahead, Marist is capable of beating Quinnipiac, having played well against the Bobcats in both matches this season.
In the first matchup, Marist stood out with two strong set wins. In what could have been a statement victory, the bottom fell out for the Red Foxes, as Quinnipiac stormed back to stun Marist in a reverse sweep victory. They got their revenge two weekends ago in a convincing 3-1 victory at Quinnipiac.
On the other side of the bracket, the team to beat is the tournament host and top seed, the Fairfield Stags. Fairfield, who finished as the runner-up in last year’s tournament, hopes to win their conference-leading 13th MAAC title. In conference, Fairfield is undefeated at home this year, having only dropped two sets.
In early October, the Red Foxes won a five-set match against Fairfield, despite trailing for most of the match. Two weekends ago, Marist lost at Fairfield in a game that the Stags seemingly never had in doubt.
Marist has looked solid against them this year, but this only matters if teams meet in the championship. Following Fairfield’s first round bye, the Stags play the winner of Niagara vs Rider. Fairfield went 2-0 against both the Purple Eagles and Broncs in the regular season, not having dropped a set in any of the four matches.
If Marist were to beat Fairfield in the championship, they would become the first team this season from the MAAC to take down Fairfield at the Leo D. Mahoney Arena.
Can it be done?
In short, yes. The Red Foxes may be the third seed, but have beaten every team in this year’s tournament. The roster undoubtedly has the necessary talent to win it all, littered with capable hitters. Senior outside hitters Sasha van der Merwe and Jordan Newblatt lead the way, with each of them garnering All-MAAC First Team honors this season.
van der Merwe has been the driving factor of Marist’s success on the court this year. She entered the season as the MAAC Preseason Player of the Year and lived up to the expectations that came with it.
Yesterday, van der Merwe was announced as the 2023 MAAC Player of the Year. The senior captain leads the MAAC in kills by a wide margin and has shown time and time again her ability to carry the team through rough stretches within sets, and matches.
The setter, Claire Lewis, has been a trustworthy leader of the offense, effectively spreading the ball around to each of her hitters. Most of the attention goes to Marist’s hitters and high-power offense, but as cliche as it sounds, the “defense wins championships” mantra will ring true with this team.
It will take a full team effort to limit the opponent on offense, and it starts at the net. Senior and junior middle hitters Vanessa Zolg and Alyssa White have been solid in the block, but need to be at their best this weekend, blocking attacks and getting solid touches to make the back row’s job easier.
From there, it comes down to passing. If Marist can consistently turn the threat of their opponents into accurate passes to Lewis, the Red Foxes can flex their muscles with their big hitters. When the Marist defense sets the stage for its dominant offense, Marist is a force to be reckoned with.
What would a MAAC Tournament Championship mean to this program?
Marist volleyball has never punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament in their 28-year history. In a program that has no championship pedigree yet, it presents this year’s team with a special opportunity: be the trailblazers to a championship standard in Poughkeepsie.
The first team to hang a championship banner in the McCann Arena would be remembered forever within the school and program as the squad that finally got it done.
Marist has a long road ahead of them to do so, needing to win three games in three days. It all starts later today, at 3 p.m. against Iona at the Leo D. Mahoney Arena in Fairfield.
Edited by Luke Sassa and Dan Aulbach
Graphic by Jaylen Rizzo