The Montclair State University volleyball team was one point away from conference championship glory. But in all fairness, it might’ve been the toughest point to score all season in one of the toughest environments to compete at.
After dropping the fourth set to the Profs, the Red Hawks were inches away from finishing off Rowan University in the fifth and final set. With kills by freshman outside hitter Kiara Polanco and junior middle blocker Gianna Arias late in the set, along with a forced error by Rowan, the NJAC Championship was just a match point away for Montclair State.
But in volleyball, momentum can shift so quickly and this game was no exception. Just moments after leading 14-12 in the fifth set, the Red Hawks were watching their South Jersey foe raise their first NJAC Championship since 2004 when the Profs defeated Montclair State in the final set 19-17, winning the series 3-2.
“Losing by two points, it hurts,” head coach Eddie Stawinski said. “At the end of the day, you have to give credit where credit is due. Rowan is a great team and I have all the respect for them, and I know it stings to not get that win but we were happy to be a part of this match and you [exit] a battle like that knowing there’s nothing you could’ve done.”
A common theme throughout this game was the Red Hawks’ inability to finish Rowan off in crucial situations. In the first set, the Red Hawks built up an 11-2 lead but were plagued by attack and service errors as well as a sensational performance from Rowan’s senior outside hitter Natalie Ogden, who finished with 22 kills in the game.
Stawinski would change up his game plan in the second and third sets. The Red Hawks chose to serve away Rowan’s star hitter players as well as get their middle blockers Arias and sophomore Skylar Kowalski more involved in the offense.
The change of game plan shifted momentum heavily in the Red Hawks’ favor, taking the second set in a back-and-forth battle that ended up going into a tie-breaker period that the Red Hawks were able to narrowly pull out (27-25). The third set was a commanding performance by Montclair State as they jumped out to a 10-point lead midway through the set and never looked back, winning the set 25-19.
A big reason why the Red Hawks were able to keep pace with Rowan was due to Polanco’s terrific play, finishing her first NJAC title game with 13 kills and 19 digs. With senior outside hitter and 2019 All-American Carly Waterman out for the season with an injury, the Red Hawks relied upon Polanco to step up at the outside hitter position. There’s been very little, if any, drop off from Polanco to Waterman.
“She’s an amazing person and player and the one thing we told her is that you’re not fitting Carly Waterman’s shoes, you’re playing [Kiara Polanco] volleyball,” Stawinski said. “And that’s ultimately what she did and I can’t say enough about her. She rose to the occasion in this game.”
This instant classic would culminate in a fifth set, as Rowan would take the fourth set 25-20. Unfortunately, the Red Hawks blew five match-point opportunities in this set as the Profs continued to make clutch plays in the tie-breaker period to keep their championship hopes alive. Eventually, the Red Hawks ran out of answers to Rowan’s heroics.
Stawinski noted that the back-and-forth affair of the contest wasn’t much of a shock for him.
“It’s a chess match,” Stawinski said. “We had a game plan for their lineup, then they switched it, then we switched it. That’s what you expect from a matchup like this. But at the end of the day, in the fifth set, all of that goes out the window and you just have to play [to the best of your ability].”
With the Red Hawks leading 17-16, Ogden would record two massive kills to push Rowan ahead. The nail in the coffin was an attack error by Polanco that gave Rowan the NJAC Title and left the women’s volleyball team in utter shock and tears.
Montclair State’s season may not be over yet; the NCAA Division III Women’s Volleyball Tournament selection show is occurring on Monday. While the Red Hawks will need some luck to make it into the big dance, the team is currently ranked fourth in NCAA Region IV, which will be pivotal to their chances of sneaking into the postseason.
“We’ll have to sit back and wait,” Stawinski said. “What I told the girls is that you should be very proud of [the season] you had and that while this loss stings, if our name is called at 11 a.m. [on Monday], you’ll have to be ready to practice.”