A year after finishing fifth in the GNAC and advancing to the playoffs despite key losses, Emerson’s men’s volleyball team finds itself pegged for an uncharacteristically low finish in the annual conference coaches’ poll—but players are setting the bar higher.
The poll, released on Jan. 16, projects a seventh-place finish for the Lions, which would leave them out of the postseason. The projection is especially puzzling to players after the Lions beat cross-town rival Emmanuel 3-0 and 3-1 in the clubs’ two meetings last year. The Saints placed sixth in the coaches’ poll.
Emerson hasn’t finished below sixth since joining the GNAC in 2009. The top six teams qualify for the playoffs. The team is also returning all but one player from last season.
Head coach Ben Read said while he’s surprised by Emerson’s rank in the survey, his players don’t need extra motivation heading into the season.
“I don’t think we needed any extra fire or bulletin board material to go ahead and motivate us,” Read said. “We’ve been working really hard since we’ve been back after break and I’m interested to see where we can end up.”
Emerson’s 2017 playoff appearance and sweep of Emmanuel came despite the graduation of key seniors Jared Gross, Brendan McGonigle, and Jackson Wiley in 2016. Nick Rusk stepped in as the team’s primary setter last year and gathered 727 assists. In his first season at Emerson, Carl D’Aguiar saw frequent action in the yellow libero’s jersey and finished with 172 digs.
In their quarterfinal playoff game against Johnson and Wales, the Lions suffered a straight-set defeat. They improved as the match continued, losing just 25-23 in the final set. Read said he employed a slightly different game plan than usual, which may have tripped Emerson up, but that the Wildcats came to play.
“We had a couple of lineup changes that [we] thought would benefit us, and I think the guys tried too hard to execute the game plan, and because of that they made mistakes that ultimately ended up hurting us,” Read said. “But the way Johnson and Wales played, they deserved to win that game.”
Read and players said a deeper roster should help the Lions build on last year’s playoff appearance. The team lost one player and added four freshmen. Sophomore Lucas Raagas, who joined the team late last season but had class scheduling conflicts, will be playing the full season.
Rusk, now a senior captain, said the added depth will help in practice, where Emerson will have the opportunity to run full scrimmages for the first time since his freshman campaign.
“Already it’s nice to see in practice we’re getting longer rallies, we’re having to think a little smarter, [and] swing a little better,” Rusk said.
Read said the team is still working on where to position players for maximum production. While Rusk seems like the obvious choice to return as setter, Read also likes what he can do as a passer and hitter. The Lions are working freshman Marcus Cepeda and two other newcomers, Raagas and freshman Joris Pijpers, in as setters.
D’Aguiar will likely see more time at libero in his sophomore campaign, but Read said he may use the team’s depth to let him show off his jump serve. Liberos are not allowed to rotate to server in men’s volleyball like they are in women’s volleyball.
Outside hitter Mark Piorkowski, who led the team with 269 kills last year, will return for his junior season. Teammates Win Kittivatcharapong (211) and Diego Garcia (136) were also big contributors in that category in 2017.
Rusk’s fellow captain, senior Stig Regan, said the Lions will use their nonconference action to find the best fit for each player.
“There’s a lot of different situations in which it could be best to play certain people, so there’s going to be a lot to play around with, much more so than we’ve had in years past where we [had] one option for every position, essentially,” Regan said.
The team opens its season at home on Feb. 1 against Dean College. Emerson opens up GNAC play against eighth nationally ranked Wentworth at home on Feb. 22.
Update: An earlier version of this story listed the team’s season opener as Friday against Pine Manor. That game has been postponed, and the team will instead open on Feb. 1 at home against Dean College.