Men’s volleyball captain earns GNAC Defensive Player of the Year


Kayla Buck

Sophomore middle/outside Neiko Pittman attempts a dig against Nichols College.

By Leo Kagan, Assistant Sports Editor

Men’s volleyball captain Neiko Pittman was named the GNAC Defensive Player of the Year on April 17, while also earning First Team All-Conference honors. 

The awards came at the end of the junior’s season with the Lions, in which the team went 13-15 overall—and 8-8 in the conference. They also pulled off an upset in the first round of the GNAC postseason with a 3-0 win over the higher-seeded Emmanuel College before losing to the No. 1 seeded Wentworth in four sets

In 2023, Pittman tallied 3.20 kills, 0.63 blocks, and 1.88 digs per set, which ranked fifth, fifteenth, and twelfth in the GNAC, respectively.  

While he felt happy about his individual performance this season, Pittman said he was a little surprised to receive his awards. 

“I wasn’t expecting it, to be honest,” he said. “I remember my coach texted me congrats, and I was like, ‘What?’ I knew that I was a good player, but typically, Defensive Player of the Year doesn’t go to my position.”

But, according to Head Coach Ben Read, Pittman bucks the conventions of a typical outside hitter, playing almost position-less volleyball. 

“He’s definitely [multi-faceted],” Read said. “He hits on the pins, he hits the middle, [and] he blocks middle. We just put him where we can to help our team, and that’s what coaches saw—he literally can do it all.”

Read added that his versatility is atypical of a college volleyball player. 

“To work as hard as he does in the front row and then have the energy to play all the way in the back row too is pretty crazy,” he said. “Most middles are not good passers [or] good defenders and they only play front row. Half of them get subbed out for someone to serve for them and those are all things that are strengths [for Neiko].”

By his own admission, Pittman wasn’t always such a well-rounded player. He said that it was only when he came into the program as a first-year—when the roster was just seven players strong—that he started learning to play more than just the position that he played in high school.   

“I came into the program as a middle, which is not a defensive position at all—it’s a blocking and hitting position,” he said. “I had to learn how to pass when I came into this program—passing off the serve and digging and playing back row, which is defense. That was something I really dived into when I came to Emerson.”

Pittman said the fact that his on-the-fly defensive education culminated in an award made the learning process that much sweeter. 

“To be honored and recognized for that aspect of my game is really huge, because it’s all stuff that I learned within the past three years,” he said.

Read emphasized the impressive—and unorthodox—nature of Pittman’s growth as a player. 

“It’s hard to fully speak to it, but [he’s] someone that had not [played the back row] until he got to college,” Read said. “To actually step out there and serve-receive at a high level, that does speak to his evolution. 

Pittman, who’s graduating at the end of the Fall 2023 semester, said he’s unsure whether he’ll return to Emerson—or another institution—for his remaining two years of NCAA eligibility. 

“[Volleyball] has been one of my favorite things I’ve been a part of at Emerson, and I’m very involved [in extracurriculars],” he said. “There’s a part of me that really wants to come back because I love to play with this team. But I also have a big decision to make.”

If he doesn’t return, Read said Pittman’s most missed quality will be his leadership ability. 

“The biggest thing I could speak about is [his] leadership on and off the court,” Read said. “It’s just the energy that [he] carries himself with. He has fun. He’s a competitor. He’s gonna leave it out there on the court. Oftentimes you try to keep the competitiveness, and you just lose that joy of playing the sport. You can see he hasn’t lost it.”

Pittman said he is grateful for the opportunity to become the kind of leader he wasn’t used to being before coming to Emerson. 

“I’ve never been a captain before,” he said. “I was always the guy that was slacking off back home. It was a huge push into a more serious aspect of the game specifically last year to this year.”

He also noted his gratitude for how well the Lions managed to balance a competitive attitude with joy and inclusivity. 

“This is the first team where I really felt like I was a part of it and like we were all really good friends,” Pittman said. “We were competitive and wanted to be better and improve, but it wasn’t as cutthroat as a lot of my other teams were in the past. I couldn’t be more thankful for this team also being a very inclusive team in terms of my identities and other people’s identities.”

In terms of the good memories, Pittman proudly mentioned the Lions’ partnerships with the You Can Play initiative, which aims to make LGBTQ+ athletes feel more included in their respective sports. But when asked what his all-time favorite Emerson volleyball moment was, Pittman knew his answer immediately: sweeping Emmanuel in the playoffs this year.

“We came out to that game,” he said. “We knew exactly how they were gonna play. We knew exactly what we had to do, we studied film. And we came in with a defensive strategy to absolutely shut them down. I’ve never seen a team execute exactly how we did. Everyone played absolutely amazing.”

“It was some of the most beautiful volleyball I have ever watched,” he continued. “And it was so, so, so freaking fun. But we changed our game and we upped our game.   And it was beautiful to see how hard we came and how passionate everybody was coming into playoffs.”

Aware that his Lions career may be over, Pittman touched on the team’s prospects for next year. He said that even without him, he believes the team can get further than their second-round playoff exit this year. 

“When they play their game, they don’t even need me,” he said. “The team is so well rounded that when everyone plays their game, they can be unbeatable.”