by Sean Begin
The Central Connecticut volleyball victory over the Bryant Bulldogs on Saturday wasn’t their most polished performance of the season. But, against a Northeast Conference opponent who came out firing, it’s a win the team will take.
“I gotta tell you, Bryant played their hearts out. They came with a lot more energy than we played today,” said head coach Linda Sagnelli after the match. “It’s a really important lesson learned that every single opponent is the same, it doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the net.”
“It feels good [to get the win] because this whole preseason we’ve had pretty tough matches and we were just trying to figure things out with new people,” said junior Makenna Lommori. “It’s good to start with a win.”
While the Blue Devils (5-8, 1-1 NEC) may have opened Saturday’s match by taking the first set 25-18, they struggled to find a rhythm on offense early, something Bryant (3-16, 0-1 NEC) took advantage of.
The Bulldogs pushed hard in the second set, edging Central 25-23 to even things up. They kept that momentum going through the third set as well, playing point for point with the Blue Devils.
With the score knotted at 20, senior Rachel Dunlap gave away a point on a miss-timed swing. It didn’t take her long to get it right back. The very next point Dunlap slammed home the kill to tie the game once more and push Central through to a 25-22 third set win.
“We kind of we’re swimming in mud a little bit the first three sets of that match,” said Sagnelli. “We did things in that five point stretch after it was tied at 20 better than we had in the whole entire match. And I’m just glad that carried over into the final set.”
Everything finally clicked for Central in the fourth and final set, both offensively and defensively. After once again exchanging points with Bryant early, Central took a slim 6-5 lead. From there, they played like the team who has made the last two NEC championships.
The Blue Devils rattled off nine straight points from both well-executed blocks and efficient attacking to put the set out of reach, to secure the match.
“In that final set, our rhythm switched. What Bryant had,[we had]. All of a sudden we just settled into our game,” said Sagnelli.
Central faced a couple of issues that match to contribute to the slow start. Starting libero Rachel Fish was battling an illness coming into the game, but tried to play through it in the first set.
“Rachel wasn’t feeling well, at all,” said Sagnelli. “We gave her a chance to go ahead and try to play through it but she just wasn’t feeling well at all.’
Senior Brittany Schumacher took over at the libero for the rest of the game and filled in admirably. Sagnelli credits her for the play that turned the team around.
“She had a really phenomenal dig off one of their hardest hits of the day,” said Sagnelli. “She sat down right under it and from that point on, I told the team, that’s the turning point. It was the turning point of rhythm for us.”
And where Schumacher filled in well for Fish, junior Nicole Dean filled in well for freshman Nicole Celarek.
Celarek has quickly found a prominent role in her first season, ranking third on the team — with 94 kills. Though, on Saturday, she couldn’t seem to get anything going. Enter Dean: coming off an injury and playing in just her second match of the season.
“We have four people that can play [the opposite] position. The two strongest of those players would be the two Nicoles,” said Sagnelli. “And one got the start and just didn’t have a great day and the other just went right in and picked it up.”
With the team nearly at full health once again (Dean and sophomore Cassidy Stankowski are both back from injury), this depth is what helped them win on Saturday and is what will help them for the rest of the season.
“With Cassidy healthy, she really solidifies the whole offense,” said Sagnelli. “Heather [Trueman] out there taking a lot of swings is great. But having everybody healthy is nice.”
As well, having everyone cleared to play is helpful to Lommori, the team’s setter. It gives her multiple options to go to at any time during a game.
“It’s really nice because we’re so deep, even people coming in and out of the game [can contribute],” said Lommori. “Even if someone is having an off day or just needs a little break, we have other people that have the same level of trust on the court.”
Central was led on the attack by Stankowski and Trueman, who each had 14 kills. Both players led the team in digs with 15 each. Three other Blue Devils posted double digit digs: Lommori (12), Fish (11) and Schumacher (10). Dunlap was effective on both ends with 11 kills and 6 blocks.
Central takes the court again this weekend with games on Saturday and Sunday against Robert Morris and St. Francis (Pa.), respectively. Both games start at 1 p.m.