by Sean Begin
In April of this year, Central Connecticut volleyball announced the signing of four new players to National Letters of Intent, to replace departing seniors Amalia Ashley and Veronika Ban and freshman Katie Wirth.
Lindsey Massicotte and Emma Schissel, both from Connecticut, join as defensive specialists with Nicole Celarek (from Illinois) and Maddie Smith (from California) looking to fill an already strong front court.
“We wanted to integrate the freshmen into our system rather quickly,” said head coach Linda Sagnelli. “And with so many players returning it was really easy to do.”
This preseason saw Sagnelli and assistant coach Greg Shell implement a different playing system that takes advantage of their new additions as well as the growing skills of returning players.
Last season, the team ran a 5-1 system: five hitters on the court with one setter controlling the floor; then-sophomore and captain Makenna Lommori served as the team’s only setter.
This year they moved to a 6-2: six hitters on the court with rotating setters running the offense. The setter plays from the back court, coming forward to the net when setting, allowing for three hitters to play up front.
Junior Ashley Lenington will move into the second setter role and play opposite of Lommori, who will now have time to focus on hitting for three rotations, a strength of her’s Sagnelli had been unable to take advantage of previously.
“Makenna is a very strong hitter,” said Sagnelli, “but we’ve never had the luxury to have her hit.”
Central will return several strong defensive players to their front court, including senior and fellow captain Rachel Dunlap, sophomore Brooke Schwab and junior Heather Trueman, who had a breakout season last year as one of the team’s best outside hitters.
In addition, senior Brittany Schumacher and sophomore Rachel Fish return as defensive specialists and liberos, providing solid defense in the back court.
The new system, combined with the team’s depth, allows for Sagnelli and Shell to pick and choose when to insert a player into a match, and to try and take advantage of an opposing team’s weakness.
As with all new things, though, there does come a learning curve.
“With the new system it takes time. I don’t think we can expect the kids to run it at 100 percent,” said Sagnelli. “Sometimes in competition things happen and [you can go] ‘Oh yeah so this is what we do when that happens.’”
The team has had time to get together before the season began, however. The freshmen arrived in late June for summer classes alongside the returning players, offering the chance to build a relationship before hitting the court.
“I think they’ve settled in really nicely. We’re asking them to do a lot of different things,” said Sagnelli of the freshmen class.
“A lot of times they come in and we change things that they’re doing and sometimes they go through a learning curve and I think that’s been like that for them this year. But they respond very quickly, they implement changes very quickly. And they have just bought right in to what we do.”
Central opened the season at the UConn Invitational, facing off against teams at or near not just Central’s RPI but league rival LIU-Brooklyn. (RPI is a ranking that takes into account a team’s win-loss record as well as the strength of the schedule they play.)
The Blue Devils played Indiana, New Hampshire and UConn in that tournament, losing to all three but pushing both UNH and UConn to five sets, forcing the fifth set against UConn after being down 2-0.
“We were not upset with our play over the weekend at UConn,” said Sagnelli, saying these early games are to be used as a learning period before the Northeast Conference season gets under way, especially with the new system in place and with the freshmen still overcoming their own learning curve.
“Our goal is to win the conference and LIU has been our obstacle,” she added.
LUI-Brooklyn has defeated Central the past two years in the NEC championship game and looks poised to repeat for a third straight year, unanimously picked by the NEC coaches to win it all. Central was picked second.
“We wanted to play teams that were comparable to or better than Long Island early so we can start to gauge things on what we need to work on,” said Sagnelli. “And most certainly the UConn’s, the Indiana’s, the Santa Clara’s, Harvard, they’re all going to be very tough teams, so we’re happy with what we’ve seen so far.”
Central played Santa Clara and Harvard, as well as Delaware, at the Harvard Invitational this past weekend, dropping all three games. They will head to Brown this weekend for a tournament before returning home next weekend for their own Blue Devil Invitational.
In addition to the new system, Central is awaiting the return of two players. Sophomores Cassidy Stankowski (who started for the team last year) and Nicole Dean are making their way back from injury and look ready to return to the team fully by the end of September, according to Sagnelli.
“The comfort level will keep going up and up and up as we play in [the new system] a little longer. We can see very good things,” said Sagnelli. “We just have to get that comfort level up there and I think it starts to run on all cylinders after that.”
The team also earned the American Volleyball Coaches Association Team Academic Award for the eighth straight season, posting a team GPA of 3.3.
“I give all the credit to them because they’re the ones who are sitting in the classrooms, they’re getting the work done and being responsible. Everywhere we travel they’re bringing their work,” said Sagnelli. “They have downtime too but they’re very efficient in getting their work done. That’s why they’re so successful.”