V-BALL: Women hope for NCAA tourney berth

by Matt Couture / Beacon Staff • September 15, 2016

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Sophomore outside hitter Fara Cohen leads in kills.
Sophomore outside hitter Fara Cohen leads in kills.

A year after coming within two points of beating eventual conference champion Babson College in the regular season, yet dropping eight of their ten conference games, Emerson’s women’s volleyball team has been working on strategies to come out on top more consistently at the end of matches. Some pieces of that puzzle: six new freshmen, a sports psychologist, and a dietitian.

It’s an antidote that seems to be working so far. To open the season, the Lions (7-3) ran off five straight victories, including a straight-set win over Newbury College in the home opener.

Whether the fast start is thanks to extra salads or clearer minds, head coach Ben Read said it’s encouraging to see the changes showing up in the standings.

“Last year, it seemed like we found a way to lose some really close games all the time,” Read said. “We just want to find little things here and there that can make us a little bit better as a team. We’re hoping that stuff does it, but I think what we’ve done so far through preseason—working as hard as we have during the summer, getting in the weight room and getting stronger—we’re starting to see that pay off.”

The contributions of freshman Bella Edwards, who places second on the team in kills and first in digs, have gone beyond the stat sheet, according to sophomore outside hitter Fara Cohen.

“She’s a light on the court, such a little firecracker out there,” Cohen, a marketing communication major, said. “Her celebration gets the whole team so excited. She kneels on the ground or screams, and her energy lights up the crowd and lights up our court.”

Cohen leads the Lions in kills, and said she’s been fully healthy after rehabbing a left hip injury that required surgery. As freshmen, both Cohen and middle blocker Kelley Guerra drove the offense, but Cohen said despite her similar personal numbers this season, she’s observed more urgency among teammates as the final points of the game near.

“Our team last year had a little bit of trouble sometimes closing out the match,” Cohen said. “This year when we get into those holes, there’s trust radiating in between every player, and a newfound confidence that this squad hasn’t seen in a few years.”

Read said he saw that confidence on display when Emerson traveled to the New York University Women’s Volleyball Labor Day Invitational earlier this month, and swept their four-game slate.

“It was really amazing to watch in New York—we were going after balls that we’ve been saying you’ve got to make an effort for,” Read said. “In practice, it started there, and then all of a sudden in New York we’ve got people diving all over the floor, running off into the stands pulling balls back in, and we end up picking up one or two of those a set, and that’s a two or four point swing.”

Setter Moira Brennan has run the offense with skill and poise, according to Cohen. Brennan’s 319 assists are good for first in the conference, and Cohen said her own contributions aren’t possible without Brennan’s work.

“Moira’s just the glue that holds our offense together,” Cohen said. “She’s great about being really smart with her placement of the ball. She’s really able to throw off the other team’s blockers and set us up for success.”

Practicing and Preaching Positivity

The annual preseason coaches’ poll was not kind to the Lions, projecting them to finish ninth out of 11 New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference teams. That’s the spot that Emerson occupied in the final 2015 standings after finishing conference play with a 2-8 record, despite going 12-13 overall.

Senior defensive specialist Jessica Hamilton, who joined the team in its inaugural NEWMAC season, said the low projection is sometimes an advantage.

“We come to these games and people don’t expect us to do well, and we end up winning,” Hamilton, a marketing communication major, said. “For me, that’s more satisfying than anything. I don’t mind being the underdog.”

That’s the type of attitude Read said he prefers—one that is devoid of sulking and emphasizes victories, small and large.

“We’re trying to talk about that positive mindset, supporting each other, forgetting about the mistakes, get ready for the next one,” Read said. “That’s something we’ve been practicing [and] preaching.”

Read outlined a plan that paves two paths to the NCAA tournament—the Lions can either win the NEWMAC to get automatic placement, or pile up wins against regional foes and hope for an at-large bid, chosen by an NCAA selection committee. Such spots are often awarded to teams with high rankings, even if they fail to win their own conference. Read pointed to the inclusion of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Springfield College in last year’s tournament despite Babson College taking home the NEWMAC hardware.

The Lions were looking to their road meeting with the University of Massachusetts Boston last Thursday as a good barometer against a competitive local opponent (the Beacons were eliminated in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament). Emerson dropped that contest 3-1.

Looking Ahead

While much of the core group that composed last season’s roster is once again back on Boylston Street, Hamilton said the addition of six newcomers means that no playing time is safe.

“There’s a lot of competition between each position, and I think that’s huge,” Hamilton said. “That forces each of us to work our hardest in every practice because a starting position is a lot harder to come by this year than it was in the past.”

Notebook Nugget

One of the six freshmen hoping to push veterans to the top of their game is Mikaela Thorne, who has some family history with the college. Read said Thorne’s sister, Alyssa, was a key contributor during the 2012 campaign that ended in a Great Northeast Athletic Conference championship for the Lions prior to their move to the NEWMAC.

Coming off a 3-1 loss to Wellesley College in their first NEWMAC match on Tuesday night, the Lions will have a brief reprieve from conference play when they meet Suffolk (3-2) tonight in a battle of downtown Boston schools.