Midseason Turnaround For Women’s Volleyball Leads To Another Great Playoff Run

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Published November 16, 2021
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The Montclarion
Leah Higgins (left) and Kiara Polanco (right) embrace after advancing to the NJAC Championship game, defeating Stockton University in three sets. Photo courtesy of David Venezia

A bright future, senior standouts and history almost made defined the fall 2021 season for the Montclair State University women’s volleyball team. However, things weren’t all sunshine and rainbows – a slow start plagued this team early in the season.

The team opened the season at Gettysburg College, losing three of four games. In their home opener, they fell to Drew University in five sets. The chemistry between the team was lacking early coming off a pandemic-shortened spring 2021 season.

Senior setter Delaney St. Pierre talked about the challenges the team faced early on, and how that helped them.

“I don’t think we would have made it as far as we did, especially with the injuries hitting us like they did this year if it wasn’t for our struggles early in the season,” St. Pierre said.

St. Pierre prepares to set the ball to junior middle blocker Gianna Arias during a regular season contest against Kean. Photo courtesy of David Venezia

Delaney St. Pierre prepares to set the ball to junior middle blocker Gianna Arias during a regular season contest against Kean.
Photo courtesy of David Venezia

It wasn’t until they played New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) rival Kean University that their season turned around. Defeating Kean in three sets at home gave the Red Hawks the confidence they needed to get the season rolling.

Senior outside hitter Carly Waterman says they owe their win to the bond they were able to build early on.

“After about two weeks into the season, once we really started to trust each other on the court, I’d say that’s when our season was really able to turn around. And that’s [what] led us to the win streak,” Waterman said.

After the sweep over Kean, the Red Hawks proceeded to go on a 13-game winning streak. Four of those matches were against division rivals, helping the Red Hawks land the second seed in the NJAC. The team’s confidence continued to grow, not giving up a set in eight games.

Injuries plagued the Red Hawks. In the first scrimmage of the season, freshman setter Shelley Eaton went down with a torn ACL. Later in the season, freshman Nicole Navarro also tore her ACL. The biggest concern was when Waterman was sidelined for the remainder of the season with an injury during a game against New York University, where the team also suffered their first loss in five weeks.

Despite all this, some fresh faces stepped up in the face of adversity and left their mark. Freshman outside hitter Kiara Polanco made her presence known every time she stepped on the court. With 279 digs and 128 kills on the season, it was clear Polanco was a force on this team.

Polanco explained how the upperclassman did a great job of receiving her and making her feel like an important contributor to the team.

“At first, it was a little intimidating [joining the team],” Polanco said. “Being a freshman is nerve-wracking, but the upperclassmen [being] so welcoming made it much easier.”

With tons of new faces, the leaders of the team still stood out. St. Pierre led the team with 835 assists along with 94 kills, 165 digs and 42 service aces, earning her a First Team All-Conference honor and the NJAC Player Of The Year award.

Waterman mentioned on her Instagram account that she may be returning for a fifth-year. Photo courtesy of David Venezia

Carly Waterman mentioned on her Instagram account that she may be returning for a fifth year.
Photo courtesy of David Venezia

Waterman, who teased on her Instagram that she may be returning for a fifth year, led the team with 276 kills. Senior libero/defensive specialist Katelyn Monaghan led the team with 488 digs and was named NJAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.

After securing a first-round bye, the Red Hawks would sweep Stockton University in the NJAC Semifinals to qualify for their second consecutive NJAC Championship game.

For this program, making the NJAC tournament is usually a given considering the winning tradition they’ve built. However, junior middle blocker Gianna Arias, who led the NJAC with 103 blocks, believes this playoff run was a little more special this time around.

“Making it into the playoffs was very rewarding for us since we got off to a rough start,” Arias said. “It really showed what this team was capable of and how we grew through the season.”

After the big win against Stockton, the focus turned to the NJAC Championship game against Rowan University. Like their regular-season matchup, the final game was a rollercoaster, with both Montclair State and Rowan trading sets back and forth. The Red Hawks fell short in a devastating five-set loss to the Profs, with the fifth set ending in a 19-17 score.

Higgins was a Second-Team All-NJAC selection this season. Photo courtesy of David Venezia

Leah Higgins was a Second Team All-NJAC selection this season.
Photo courtesy of David Venezia

As for next year, the team will look vastly different with star players Leah Higgins, Victoria Tennon and Monaghan graduating. It is unclear if Waterman and St. Pierre will return for a fifth season.

In an interview with The Montclarion shortly after their NJAC Championship game, head coach Eddie Stawinski says he believes the program will be moving in a different direction.

Left to right: Graduating this year are seniors Outside hitter Leah Higgins, setter/right side Delaney St. Pierre, libero/defensive specialist Katelyn Monaghan, outside hitter Carly Waterman and right side Victoria Tennon. Photo courtesy of David Venezia

Left to right: Graduating this year are seniors Outside hitter Leah Higgins, setter/right side Delaney St. Pierre, libero/defensive specialist Katelyn Monaghan, outside hitter Carly Waterman and right side Victoria Tennon.
Photo courtesy of David Venezia

“We might be entering into a little bit of a rebuild after this season,” Stawinski said. “Obviously when you lose five seniors, some of the [younger] players on the team are [going to] step into new roles along with some of the newer recruits. We are always going to compete [for championships], but there might be one year where we need to get a little more experience under our belts.”

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