Year in review: Mixed results for Lions

by Matt Case / Beacon Staff and Matt Couture / Beacon Staff • April 20, 2016

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As Emerson finishes up its third year in the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference, some programs are starting to break ground, while others are still looking for their first conference win. This piece highlights the accomplishments of certain squads, ranging from a postseason tournament championship crowning of the women's soccer team, to the college's first NEWMAC playoff victory in men's basketball.

Men’s basketball: The crown jewel of the Emerson sports scene this year, the fifth-seeded men’s basketball team delivered the college’s first New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference playoff victory, a 72-63 upset of no. 4 Springfield College on the road in late February. The Lions again played with tremendous heart in a nail-biting 74-69 loss to eventual champion Babson College just three days later.

 The core group of seniors—guards Michael Thorpe and Tyson Hallowell, and forwards Austin Pinckney and Sean Duffy—stepped up their game repeatedly. Pinckney crushed the conference on the boards, collecting a NEWMAC-leading 289 rebounds, including 51 more than his closest competitor, Springfield’s Larry Piretra. Thorpe, a Beacon correspondent, scored his 1,000th career collegiate point in November.

 The Lions showed a remarkable ability to compete on any given night, defeating eventual tournament second and third seeds Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Worcester Polytechnic Institute on the road.

 The team’s downfall, standings-wise, seemed to be a propensity to play down to the level of weaker conference opponents. The team lost twice to Wheaton College, twice to the United States Coast Guard Academy, and once to Clark University. These are the three NEWMAC schools that failed to qualify for the postseason.  

 It’s fair to wonder how head coach Bill Curley’s group will fare in the coming season after graduating such a talented quartet. Sophomore forward John Geary and freshman guard Geoffrey Gray both impressed, and should figure into the starting conversation this fall; but beyond Geary and Gray it will be interesting to see how Curley constructs his lineup.

 A strong recruiting class would go a long way toward giving this squad an opportunity to repeat their exciting 2015-2016 results. The Lions will arrive on campus down 10 seniors compared to last fall. —Couture

Men’s volleyball: As another group that will be ravaged by the loss of a collection of veterans, the men’s volleyball team surely felt a push to bring home some Great Northeast Athletic Conference hardware this spring. However, they fell short after losing their quarterfinal playoff match in straight sets to Rivier University.

 Volleyball is the only Emerson sport that is still part of the GNAC, because the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference does not house a men’s program.

 Senior Jackson Wiley became the first Lion to reach 1,000 kills of all-time in February, and finished with 213 for the season. Emerson’s other star seniors—Jared Gross and Brendan McGonigle—were impressive in their own right, Gross finishing tops in the GNAC with 281 digs, and McGonigle ranking fifth with 8.66 assists per set. Gross received his second consecutive GNAC Defensive Player of the Year award in April.

 After the season, head coach Ben Read acknowledged that the Lions can’t replace their five graduating seniors in one offseason, but Read’s returning talent should leave Emerson with a legitimate shot to make another tournament appearance.

 Freshman Mark Piorkowski burst onto the scene, finishing as the team leader in kills with 235. Sophomore Nick Rusk was impressive in a March 29 contest against Lasell College, compiling 36 assists in the absence of McGonigle, the usual top setter. —Couture

Women’s soccer: As the seventh seed in a pool of eight, the women’s soccer team became the Cinderella story of the 2015 Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament. At 3-6-1 in NEWMAC play, the women fell just short of the postseason, but an undefeated 9-0-1 non-conference record earned them a spot in the ECAC’s invitational tourney. In a 1-1 tie after regulation and double overtime, Emerson outscored no. 2 Endicott College 4-2 in penalty kicks to pull off the upset and head to the semifinals. 

Up against top-seeded Elms College, freshman Paige Haley netted goals in both the fifth and 61st minutes to give her team the 2-0 victory and a spot in the final. In the championship, against no. 4 University of New England, the Lions overcame a two-goal first half deficit with two scores from freshman Jess Frost less than five minutes apart. In its final moments of the season, the Emerson squad made four penalty kicks to New England’s three, winning the ECAC Championship. 

The undefeated non-conference record shows promise for the women’s soccer team, which missed the NEWMAC playoffs by three points. Not only did it beat those nine opponents, but cumulatively outscored them 44-4, and obliterated Wheelock College in the fourth match of the season, 12-0. Next year, this team will be characterized by its 17 of its 21 returning members. It loses top goal scorer Alexandra Dezenzo, whose past Division I experience was monumental, and Emerson’s 2015-2016 Student-Athlete of the Year, senior Tayllar Righini. Freshmen Haley and Frost, however, were the squad’s second and third highest scorers with 12 and 11, respectively. Four of Haley’s goals were game winners. In our opinion, head coach David Suvak has a potential playoff team for at least the next three years. —Case

Women’s volleyball: The women’s volleyball team had quite the up-and-down season. Despite an almost .500 record, at 12-13 overall, conference play proved more difficult for the Lions, who finished ninth in the NEWMAC at 2-8. The players also found the Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym a more comfortable place to play, as their home record stood at 9-7, versus 2-5 on the road (1-1 at neutral sites). 

But their streaky season hit its most memorable point with the Lions’ three consecutive straight-set victories over NEWMAC opponents Smith, Curry College, and Suffolk in late September. That momentum halted in October when they went to a fifth set in their next three contests, losing all of them. In the last of those matchups, they even grabbed the first two sets against the 16-6, 5-3 Babson, and held an 18-9 lead in the third, until the Beavers marched back and won 25-23. Babson then took the fourth set 25-19, and eked out a competitive fifth, 20-18. 

Junior middle blocker Jules Augustine finished the season with 218 kills, followed by freshman middle blocker Kelly Guerra with 157. Augustine also led the defense with 48 total blocks, with 13 solo stops. It seems likely the Lions will have the same starting lineup, with only two seniors, who were not starters, departing. —Case

Women’s lacrosse: A year after falling short of the NEWMAC playoffs with a 3-5 conference record, the Lions have taken a leap forward in 2016. In their second year under head coach Kat Egizi, the team is currently tied for fourth place in the conference standings, with a 4-2 record against NEWMAC opponents. Egizi told the Beacon this month that players have been more comfortable with her system in its second season, leading to more sustained success.

 The team also boasts the second highest goal total in the NEWMAC with 185 tallies, behind first-place MIT (204). Emerson’s offense was given a jolt with the arrival of freshman attack Emily Quinn, who is tied for seventh in the conference with 35 goals. Meredith Weber and Guerin Morissette also rank in the top 10, with 39 and 35 goals, respectively.

 Goalkeepers Victoria Kanaris and Kristina Modica both hold top-five save rates. The tandem’s combined 46.8 percentage stopping shots gives the Lions the third spot in the conference rankings. Egizi also cited an improved defense as key, and the group had little turnover ahead of 2016—just two seniors graduated.

 The team will meet MIT and Springfield in their final two conference showdowns on April 24 and April 27. The two opponents were also last on Emerson’s 2015 schedule, and they dropped both matchups by double digits. But the 2015 calendar may not be the best indication of how things will turn out, given that the Lions also lost to Wheaton and Coast Guard by double digits a year ago, and defeated both this spring. The top six finishers in the standings will advance to the NEWMAC postseason tournament. —Couture

Cross-country: In cross-country, it’s hard to gauge the success of a team’s season without focusing on individual accomplishments. Some students join to compete with some of the best runners in the state, while others do so to stay active and become part of a cohesive unit.

Despite being ranked last in both the men’s and women’s New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference preseason coaches’ polls, the Lions did have some memorable moments in 2015. On the women’s side, freshman Chelsea Swift finished second overall at the Massachusetts Maritime Lt. Travis J. Fuller Women's Cross Country Invitational in September. Sophomore Natalie Kenney was the team’s top finisher in the 2015 NEWMAC Cross Country Championships.

Junior men’s captain Mike O’Connor told the Beacon in September that he was focused on seeing four of his runners clock times under 30 minutes by season’s end. In the NEWMAC championship in November, three managed to reach the benchmark—sophomore Cameron Sleeper, sophomore Matthew Benson, and O’Connor himself. —Couture

Men’s soccer: An injury-riddled 2015 made for a long campaign for Emerson’s men’s soccer team. A year after finishing 0-6-1 in the conference, they again failed to secure a victory in seven NEWMAC matchups. They were shut out in five of their seven NEWMAC losses. The Lions picked up five wins in non-conference play, finishing 5-13 overall, a step down from a 6-8-4 record in 2014.

Departing senior captain Mitch Lapierre told the Beacon in November that his teammates could’ve handled the aftermath of injuries to himself and others better. In October, the Beacon reported that six starters were out of commission at one point during the season, and that players had suffered a combined three ACL tears.

Graduating senior goalkeeper Carter Bower notably led the NEWMAC with 81 saves. But he told the Beacon after the season that he would’ve preferred to occupy a lower slot on that list, and that such a statistic spoke to a leaky defense. One positive without a caveat—Dan Knight, a senior forward from Berklee College of Music, finished with nine goals, tied for fourth in the conference. Junior Duncan Bochicchio also registered a top-10 finish, tying three others for seventh in the NEWMAC with seven tallies.

First-year head coach Javier Mejia implemented a new style of play in September. In an interview with the Beacon at season’s end, he said significant progress had been made transitioning from offense to defense, and predicted that players’ experience with his game management would serve them well heading into 2016. —Couture

Softball: Emerson’s softball team has already matched their total games played in 2015, thanks to the marked change in weather from a year ago. Through 32 games, and with four conference tilts remaining, the 2016 Lions are 9-23, and just 1-13 in-conference. Last season, in their entire 32 game schedule, Emerson finished 14-18 with a 4-14 conference record.

Head coach Phil McElroy has relied heavily on senior Samantha Corey, who, with three more outs recorded, will reach the century mark in innings pitched. Corey has impressed, collecting five of the team’s nine wins, and striking out 66, compared to just 36 walks. She’s started half of the Lions’ 32 contests. The 66 punchouts place her fifth in the NEWMAC.

Corey’s frequent battery mate, freshman catcher Kallista Leonardos, has provided the pop on offense. Leonardos has hit seven long balls, and currently maintains an even .400 on base percentage. The California native came to the Lions shrouded in uncertainty after undergoing Tommy John surgery over the summer. But exactly nine months after going under the knife, Leonardos was listed on McElroy’s inaugural 2016 lineup card, gathering two hits and one of her team-leading 27 RBIs.

The Lions are tied for third in the conference with a combined 15 home runs, but lag behind the opposition in batting average, ranking tenth of 10 teams with a combined .238 mark. The pitching staff’s 5.72 ERA as a group ranks ninth.

Sophomore Jacqueline DeFusco deserves recognition for her .313 batting average and four homers. DeFusco stands alone with the team’s second highest average, while freshman Kodie Cash(CQ has also homered four times, tying for second in that category.

The Lions’ last four games will come in the form of two home doubleheaders, against Coast Guard and Clark. —Couture

Women’s tennis: It was a rough season for the women’s tennis team, as it finished 0-11 overall for the second consecutive year, bringing the losing streak to 22. Five of the squad’s seven shutout losses came in the first five matches, until its Oct. 3 matchup against Smith, which it fell 8-1. The Lions then lost 8-1 against Bridgewater State University, and ended their 2015 campaign with 7-2 losses against both Salem State University and Suffolk. The squad’s six individual match victories of the year went to Lalin Tasa and Jamie CoConis, who each won three. Other than playing in a difficult conference, the Lions also had to compete through the season with only six members, forcing some to play twice in one day, while the lack of a full roster caused some individual matches to be forfeited. —Case        

Women’s volleyball: The women’s volleyball team had quite the up-and-down season. Despite an almost .500 record, at 12-13 overall, conference play proved more difficult for the Lions, who finished ninth in the NEWMAC at 2-8. The women also found the Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym a more comfortable place to play, as their home record stood at 9-7, versus 2-5 on the road (1-1 at neutral sites). But their streaky season hit its most memorable point with the Lions’ three consecutive straight-set victories over NEWMAC opponents Smith, Curry College, and Suffolk in late September. That momentum halted in October when they went to a fifth set in their next three contests, losing all of them. In the last of those matchups, they even grabbed the first two sets against the 16-6, 5-3 Babson , and held an 18-9 lead in the third, until the Beavers marched back and won 25-23. Babson then took the fourth set 25-19, and eked out a competitive fifth set, 20-18.

Junior middle blocker Jules Augustine finished the season with 218 kills, followed by freshman middle blocker Kelly Guerra with 157. Augustine also led the defense with 48 total blocks, with 13 solo. It seems likely the Lions will have the same starting lineup, with only two seniors, who were not starters, departing. —Case  

Women’s basketball: Despite missing the NEWMAC playoffs with an eighth place finish in the regular season standings, the women’s basketball team ended its year on a high note. The Lions had already been eliminated before the season finale against WPI. However, on their home court, the women handed eventual no. 2 seed WPI just their fifth loss of the season, and third in the conference, with a 59-48 win. The Engineers would go on to win the NEWMAC title.

Emerson’s final record, 11-14, 6-10, reflects of the difficulty of the conference. Other than WPI, their five NEWMAC victories came against teams that finished below them in the standings. The Lions put up solid fights against those above them, however, falling to WPI by six in their first matchup, and to MIT

The few successes of the season were propelled by players’ individual performances. Sophomore forward Sierra Ducey’s 8.7 rebounds per game were good for fourth-best in the NEWMAC, with the 48 percent shooting of freshman forward Charlie Boyle ranking fifth, and junior guard Elizabeth Horan’s 39.4 3-point percentage was second best. Boyle was the team’s leading scorer, with 12.4 points per game, despite only starting in four contests. —Case

Baseball: With former player Nick Vennochi in his first year as head coach, Emerson baseball eclipsed their win total from 2015, but still looks for its first NEWMAC win this season. The Lions won their opening day game in a 9-8, 11-inning thriller against Wentworth College on Feb. 27. Just 10 days later, they took home two victories over Finlandia University in a doubleheader, and began the season 3-2, surpassing their two-win total last season (2-27 overall). But its early success turned downward as conference play ensued, and the team lost 16 in a row, including falling victim to a 23-3 loss to WPI on March 29, and a 31-2 loss against MIT on April 9. They then won their fourth game of the season on April 13, with a 7-6 victory over Newbury College. Vennochi’s squad is 4-25 overall, but is currently 0-14 in the NEWMAC with nine contests remaining to pull out some victories and get into the playoffs.

Leading the Lions offense are junior shortstop Mitch Moorman, with a .395 batting average and 32 hits, sophomore second baseman Neil Perry, a former Beacon correspondent, with 15 runs scored, and sophomore catcher Pablo Feldman with 16 RBIs. Junior Cal Laird leads the pitching staff with 26 strikeouts, while senior Jack Capotorto has thrown two complete games, and freshman Tim Mainella has two wins. —Case

Men’s tennis: After a 2-9 record last year, the men’s tennis team already eclipsed that total this season by winning their first five matches with the program’s first full-time head coach Dan Munsey. The team has welcomed in new no. 1 Antonio Ramirez, a sophomore who brings Division I experience, having played for New Mexico State University as a freshman. Following Ramirez in the singles lineup is senior Nik Rhodes, the Lions’ former top player, and freshman Dan Okin at the three spot, who also plays on the top doubles team with Ramirez. All three players started the season 10-0, having competed in singles and doubles for the first five matches. The Lions have since lost six straight, and are 0-4 in the conference. The tennis program has yet to win a NEWMAC match, but has four more chances to do so before the season’s end. —Case

Men’s lacrosse: Through the first nine games of their 2015 campaign, the men’s lacrosse team was 4-5, before grabbing one more win and finishing the season at 5-11 without a conference win. This season, the Lions are winless through 11 games, having lost two overtime contests and losing by an average of over 13.5 points. They are still on the hunt for their program’s first NEWMAC win and have so far played in two of them: a 20-point rout from Massachusetts Maritime Academy and a 23-point thrashing by Wheaton. The Lions have three remaining contests: Coast Guard, Babson, and Clark.

Senior attack Nicholas Kitsos leads all Emerson scorers with 16 goals and eight assists, followed by sophomore attack Diego Rosende with 14 and six. Freshman goalkeeper Bailey Kennedy has stopped 38.3 percent of shots. —Case