The Emerson men’s volleyball team began its 2012 campaign in dominant fashion, sweeping Regis and Lesley without losing a single set.
After devouring these small fish, however, the Lions found themselves in a much bigger pond.
Faced with stiff opposition early in the season, the Lions have gone 1-5 since their first two games. The team dropped two home games to conference rivals and finished the MIT Invitational Tournament with only one victory out of four matches, a 3-2 win over York College. Following Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of the Emmanuel College Saints, Emerson’s record stands at 3-5.
Despite the losses, head coach Ben Read said beginning the season with tough match-ups will benefit the team in the long run.
“Playing better teams is only going to get us prepared to play the better teams in our conference. I want us competing with the best, so we’ve got to start playing them,” said Read, who made a point to enter the Lions in the MIT Tournament before the year began. “In the future, it might be nice to play some [stronger] competition earlier,” Read said. “Next year, I may actually try to add some better out-of-conference opponents to get ready for our conference opponents.”
Of the opponents Emerson has faced so far, five are considered to be top teams in their conferences. Endicott and Elms were ranked one and two respectively in the New England Collegiate Conference in a preseason poll, while MIT is rated fifth in the country in Division III. Rivier has won the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) championship for two years running, and Emmanuel was ranked among the top 15 teams in Division III in 2011.
Senior captain Steve Selnick said he feels this year’s team is a strong club that will improve with time.
“This is probably the most complete team that we’ve had in my four years here,” said the journalism major. “I think the recruiting has finally turned into us getting some quality players on the court.”
Read said the depth of the team, whose roster names 14 players, will allow him to experiment with the lineup to find the right combination.
“We’re going to keep rotating the lineup … because we have guys that are flexible and can play multiple positions,” said Read. Against the Saints, newcomers Bill Blatchley and Nate Chivers saw significant time, while Chris Davis played at outside hitter.
One particular player who has emerged as a force on the young season is freshman Connor Burton.
“I was lucky to play enough at a pretty high level back home, so I was pretty ready for it, but college is definitely a whole new level,” said Burton, a middle blocker.
The Valencia, Calif. native has played in every set for the Lions so far this season.
Against Emmanuel, Emerson was missing much of its height with Jake Bennett on crutches on the sideline and Frank O’Sullivan inactive for undisclosed reasons, leaving the 6-foot-3 Burton to pick up the slack. Bennett and O’Sullivan are also 6-foot-3. On several occasions, Selnick, a setter, was forced to go up alone against Emmanuel’s tall front row.
“Any time that your setter has to block middle, it’s not that good of a situation,” said Selnick.
In the end, however, it was the Saints rookie phenom who came through. Ashanti Jackson, who is second in the conference with 77 kills, played well on both offense and defense to lead Emmanuel to victory. In addition to several blazing strikes, Jackson served safe floaters and kept the ball alive with diving digs.
The Emerson side looked less experienced than its top-seeded opponent. Service errors and defensive miscommunication stifled potential rallies, and Emmanuel was able to close out the final set comfortably by a score of 25-17.
Emerson is 0-2 in the GNAC, but there is still plenty of volleyball to be played, and the players are enthusiastic.
“We all do our part,” Burton said. “As of right now, it’s early in the season and we have nowhere to go but up.”
The contest against Emmanuel marked the beginning of a long homestand for the Lions. Emerson will play seven of its next eight games at home, starting with a matchup against Newbury tonight.