Springfield College went to the NCAA Division 3 Tournament last year and was ranked number one in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference preseason coaches’ poll, so Saturday, Sept. 28 was an inopportune time for Emerson women’s volleyball head coach Ben Read to be absent from the match.
With Read away attending his sister’s wedding, top assistant Ryan Berning and first-year coach Megan Kaplon took over the reins as the Lions put on a strong showing against a team ranked 31st in the nation in the latest American Volleyball Coaches’ Association Division 3 poll, which was released on Wednesday.
Emerson fell in straight sets, 3-0, to the visiting Pride, but dropped the match by close set scores of 26-24, 25-19, and 25-21 at the Bobbi Brown & Steven Plofker Gym, continuing to earn respect in the school’s first year in the NEWMAC.
“They’ve got a lot of talent, but personally I think we could have beaten them if we just played our A-game,” Berning said. “There were a couple service receiving errors on our part. It’s a mental game when you get to this level.”
Senior Alyssa Thorne has been the Lions’ top hitter this fall and she came through again with a match-high 15 kills, tying for her second-best output of the season. Thorne pounded home a key point late in the first set that gave Emerson its first lead, 20-19, as they rallied after having gone down, 15-8, to Springfield.
“We were really excited to play them because they’re ranked as the best in our conference and they’re nationally ranked,” Thorne said. “It was a big game to come into and we were all really nervous, but I think we pulled together really well. This was by far the best we’ve played, even though it’s frustrating to lose.”
Springfield’s go-to outside hitter Tessa Smolinski (13 kills) and 6-foot-2 middle blocker Lauren Holt (12 kills) paced the Pride on offense. Both were named NEWMAC Women’s Volleyball Player of the Week during September.
Springfield had six straight points to make it 13-7 in the first set, and soon after the visitors took their largest lead of the opening frame, 15-8.
Emerson rallied with a four-point streak to draw it back to 15-12. After being tied, 24-24, the Lions surrendered consecutive points to drop the opening set.
Berning said lapses in service receiving played a factor in their first set loss.
“It was a lot about mental toughness and keeping it together even though we were playing a team that, on paper, was better than we are,” Thorne said.
The Pride reeled off seven straight points to take a commanding 10-3 lead in the second set, and Emerson never got any closer than three points back of the visitors, squandering what Springfield head coach Moira Long said was a strong second set performance by freshman middle blocker Julianna Augustine (nine kills).
“They play outstanding defense and that’s what we really expected from them, to be super scrappy,” said Long, whose team moved to 12-1 overall. “They started to get their middle established, which we needed to make adjustments to. They’re really well-balanced, so they’re definitely going to be competing.”
The final set was close in the middle portion, but Springfield eventually pulled ahead to a 23-16 lead. As opposed to their earlier struggles toward the end of the first set, the Lions played gritty defense until the final whistle and scored four straight points with several rally-saving digs from the defensive specialists.
“It’s hard playing a team that’s a lot bigger than us because they get a lot more action in the back row, but they held together,” Thorne said.
Star sophomore setter Juliana Tucker returned in a limited role Sept. 24 in a 3-2 win over Worcester Polytechnic Institute following a six-game injury hiatus.
Tucker, the reigning Great Northeast Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year, was closer to her usual self against Springfield with 37 assists and 11 digs.
“It’s great to have her back — she runs a really excellent offense — but [sophomore Giuli Frendak], who filled in for her when she was out, did an amazing job,” Thorne said. “It’s really great to get both of them on the court now.”
Frendak led the Lions with 12 digs, playing most of the match on the back row.
After a 3-0 loss away to NEWMAC opponent Smith College on Tuesday, Emerson (10-6, 2-3) will head to the Johnson and Wales Invitational in Providence, R.I., to play at least three games this weekend starting on Friday.