With a regular season loss still fresh in their minds, the Springfield College women’s volleyball team was poised to put Wellesley away and earn the ultimate redemption after winning the first two sets of their NEWMAC Championship showdown with Wellesley. With their backs against the wall, however, Wellesley orchestrated a comeback performance that stunned the nearly-filled bleachers at Blake Arena and sent the Pride reeling heading into the fifth set. After regrouping during the brief intermission, the Pride roared back, earning their first NEWMAC Championship since 2008 by beating Wellesley 3-2 (25-19, 25-23, 21-25, 17-25, 15-9).
With their fourth NEWMAC Championship, the Pride earned an automatic qualifying bid to the NCAA Championship, which they learned on Monday they will be hosting. The Springfield College women’s volleyball team, who earned the top seed in the region, will take on Westfield State University tomorrow at 8 p.m.
“We got a little frustrated after losing those two games and you could see it in our faces,” senior middle blocker, tournament Most Outstanding Player, All-Conference first team selection and recently named NEWMAC Player of the Year Lauren Torvi said. “But we’re fighters and we knew that game was ours, so going into that fifth game, we held our heads high and played through it.”
The Pride were seeded No. 1 in this year’s tournament and No. 1 in all of New England after amassing a regular season record of 29-2 and 8-1 in conference play. Their only loss in the conference, however, came to Wellesley on Oct. 11, in a 3-1 loss that the Blue dominated thoroughly.
“We definitely didn’t play our best match against Wellesley [earlier this season],” first-year and recently named NEWMAC Coach of the Year Moira Long said. “We prepared for this all week because MIT and Wellesley are very similar, so I really felt like preparing for MIT was preparing [us] for Wellesley. They have big hitters on the outside, so we just worked our defense to make sure that we could pick that up.”
To advance to the championship, SC had to take on the fourth-seeded MIT Engineers in the semifinals after earning a first-round bye. The Pride made quick work of the Engineers in three straight games (25-16, 25-10, 25-15), with sophomore outside hitter and All-Conference first team selection Tessa Smolinski leading the way with 14 kills and 10 digs. Torvi chipped in with 11 kills of her own and three blocks. As a team, the Pride achieved their most efficient hitting percentage of the season, striking .442.
Wellesley, who came into the tournament seeded No. 3, had a much steeper path to the championship match. They first defeated the sixth-seeded Babson Beavers in three straight games (25-16, 25-20, 25-20), with freshman sensation Sydney Carfagno leading all players with 13 kills and four aces.
The Blue then avenged a regular-season loss of their own by defeating the second-seeded Coast Guard Bears 3-1 (24-26, 25-18, 25-20, 25-19) behind a stellar defensive effort. The Bears beat the Blue in a critical NEWMAC game on Oct. 25, 3-0 (25-22, 25-18, 25-14), knocking Wellesley out of contention for the NEWMAC regular season title and handing the Blue their first and only sweep of the year. After dropping the first set in Saturday’s rematch, the Blue grabbed all momentum by stymieing the Bears’ attack, which could only amass a .128 team attack percentage.
In a surprising move by 19-year coach Dorothy Webb, the Blue used their usual setter, junior Isabel Custodio, as more of an attacker, splitting the setting duties between Custodio and sophomore Hilary Ayers, who is listed as an outside hitter. Custodio accumulated 817 assists on the year and only 87 kills, so it was an unusual sight to see her targeted as an offensive weapon. Custodio did not disappoint, earning a triple-double with 23 assists, 14 digs and 11 kills for the Blue.
Wellesley’s win put them in the championship game against the Pride, a team they have gotten the best of in the past. Before the Pride’s victory on Sunday, SC women’s volleyball had an all-time mark of 13-21 against the Blue.
After firing on all cylinders and storming out to grab a two set lead, the Pride seemed to lose their rhythm, and with it, the lead.
“After set two, all of a sudden, our passing got a little suspect and we got away from running the middle, and I think that really hurt us,” Long said.
A string of net infractions also plagued the Pride, as they gave uncontested point after uncontested point to the Blue, who regained their swagger as the Pride simultaneously lost theirs.
“We were in the net more in set three and four than we were maybe the entire season,” Long said. “I think we got away from us. We say all the time you need to do your job, and I think we started to do somebody else’s job instead of just trusting and believing in each other.”
Looking for a spark, Long made several key moves that could have changed the outcome of the match. Wellesley was scoring too easily in sets three and four against a Pride defense that for the most part held the vaunted Wellesley outside hitters in check. Sensing that her team needed a change, Long inserted sophomore defensive specialist Clare Henry in for middle blocker Mary Consol to serve.
By having a defensive specialist in the back row instead of a middle blocker whose specialty is blocking, Long was hoping to keep more plays alive and give her offense a chance to go on the attack. Although used very sparingly throughout the season, Henry came up clutch when called upon, not recording a single serving error while adding another digging presence.
“Any player on our bench is always ready to go,” Long said.
Although freshman setter Molly Giannattasio had been playing well, Long made another key match-up move designed to slow Wellesley’s rapidly growing momentum by switching in fellow freshman setter Whitney Miller, a move that Long has made many times before. Both setters have split time throughout the season.
“I felt like they [Wellesley] were in a rhythm,” Long said. “Whitney came in and really mixed it up. That actually was the biggest spark for us, the fact that she just kept them half a step behind.”
Despite the moves, the Pride still found themselves in a 2-2 tie after being dismantled in the fourth set. With only a short intermission to recover, the Pride proved their mettle by coming back with renewed fervor, taking the lead in the fifth set and putting away the pesky Blue for good, 15-9.
“It didn’t matter to us what they did,” Torvi said. “All we had to do was go out and play Springfield volleyball and we knew we’d be successful.”
Torvi led by example by totaling 21 kills to lead all players to go along with eight timely blocks, earning her the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“Offensively, she’s a dominant force,” Long said. “We say all the time, ‘Feed the middle, feed the middle.’”
Senior tri-captain and All-Conference second-team selection Kim Giaquinto chipped in by adding timely offensive and defensive plays to propel the Pride to victory. For the match, she tallied 12 kills, six digs and five blocks.
All-Conference second team selection Itza Nieves also played a gritty game after injuring what appeared to be her left hamstring early in the match. After getting taped up, Nieves continued to make her characteristic diving digs, keeping plays alive. Nieves ended up with 23 digs for the match.
“She kind of has fought through pain the whole season, so we didn’t expect anything less from Itza,” Long said.
Nick Lovett contributed to this piece.