After Emerson’s men’s volleyball team played its first two sets Tuesday night, it looked like a laptop that refused to connect to the internet—error after error after error.
The fifth-seeded Lions faced fourth-seeded Johnson and Wales University on the road in the first round of the Great Northeast Athletic Conference playoffs Tuesday night, and handed over the first two sets of the evening, committing a total of 28 errors. By the time Emerson gathered itself for the third set, it was too late.
Yet the Lions’ performance in the third set was an outstanding contrast to the first two sets—only four errors compared to Johnson and Wales’ six, and a tight Lions lead more often than not.
The Lions began to play the way they wanted to, with a fiery attack and attitude to match, bringing them back into the set and resulting in a close call 25-23 loss.
Emerson normally averages about 18 errors per match, but ended up with 11 in the first set and 13 in the second.
Head coach Ben Read attributed the errors to the level of play that Johnson and Wales was presenting the Lions with.
“I think Johnson and Wales did some things defensively which contributed to them having more blocks, and you can affect players mentally when you block,” Read said. “Errors just snowball; when you have one, you’re going to try not to make them, and you’re going to make more instead of just going out there and playing relaxed and having fun.”
The first set finished with a score of 25-16, and in the second, the Lions only earned 10 points by the time Johnson and Wales earned their 25th. In the first set, the Wildcats quickly went up 3-0, rattling the Lions and forcing Read to call an early timeout.
It helped the squad get on the board on the next serve, but once again the momentum slipped from them and they fell another three points. That trend remained throughout the entire set— a game of catch-up that grew closer to its goal, but never reached it.
The second set started off the way the Lions wanted it to, matching kills and keeping errors to a minimum, but it quickly leapt out of their control. The Lions kept themselves close on the Wildcats’ heels early in the set, with a score of 6-3. That quickly turned into a score of 9-4, causing Read to use another timeout to re-collect his team. The Lions added another point to make it 9-5, but then suddenly faltered. Eleven of the 13 errors came after that point, and the team quickly fell behind.
Junior captain Nick Rusk said it was because Emerson stopped adapting to what the Wildcats were doing. Hitters kept going for the middle, even when they were blocked.
Following the conclusion of the second set, in the locker room, Rusk said he made an emotionally charged speech that eventually sparked the animated play for the third set.
Rusk said he essentially called out his team for not playing the way they could be.
“I said, with a lot more expletives, ‘I don’t think we’re playing as a team,” Rusk said. “I have no hitters out there, I have no passers out there, and we’re playing like a below average team.’”
Rusk’s tactic of embarrassment isn’t one he usually resorts to, but the stakes under the crunch of time put him in a difficult situation.
“I try not to get mad during games, but that was just absurd to me that we tanked so hard and so quick, and there was zero energy out there. Everyone had their head down [before], and now we’re in a do or die situation,” Rusk said. “It worked, though; somehow it worked and we did better.”
The Lions came out strong in the third set, and made it known that they weren’t quite finished. They claimed their first lead all night immediately, going up 1-0 and repossessing it at 3-2 after a kill from sophomore Mark Piorkowski. The team could be heard rallying one another early on, maintaining Rusk’s fierce spark.
The first error in that set for Emerson came after a Johnson and Wales error gave the Lions a 7-5 lead, and two subsequent Emerson errors tied for the game for only the second time that set.
The Lions continued to push forward, though, and took a 10-7 lead before the Wildcats had to pull back and call a timeout.
Johnson and Wales played a more successful game of catch-up than the one Emerson tried in the first set. The game tied at 17, 21, and again at every point onward until Johnson and Wales earned the match point they needed to advance to the second round of the GNAC playoffs.
Now, Emerson looks to recover for the next season. Read said they will not compete in the ECAC championship tournament, though they qualified with a .500 record. Instead, the Lions will look to improve on their 6-8 conference record next season, with a squad that will stay mostly intact since there are no graduating seniors on the roster.