Men’s volleyball splits record in annual Pride-themed games

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Photo: Katie Redefer

Junior setter Jackson Gordan in the “You Can Play” games on March 19, 2022.

By Vivi Smilgius, Editor-in-Chief

The Emerson men’s volleyball team left Saturday’s “You Can Play” games with a split record, sweeping Colby-Sawyer College and losing to Regis College in a hard-fought five-set match.

Played annually in the college’s Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym, the “You Can Play” games are part of a nationwide initiative honoring LGBTQ athletes and coaches. The project attempts to make sports safer and more inclusive for members of the LGBTQ community.

Emerson head coach Ben Read said the “You Can Play” games are important for recognizing queer people in sports, especially at schools with high LGBTQ populations like Emerson, which ranked first on the Princeton Review’s ranking of LGBTQ-friendly colleges.

“It doesn’t matter your gender, your race, your sexual orientation, or anything else—if you can play, you can play,” he said. “It’s nice to see in athletics at a school like Emerson, where we continually have one of, if not the top LGBTQ-friendly schools in the country.”

Sophomore middle blocker Neiko Pittman said the “You Can Play” games are consistently some of the Lions’ best matches, because LGBTQ pride means so much to the team and Emerson’s culture as a college.

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“Athletics, in the past, have not been a supportive place for queer people,” Pittman said. “Emerson has a large queer community and we have queer people on our team, so it’s just something we do to support each other.”

Pittman recorded a team-high 31 kills between the two matches, exceeding his average 3.37 kills per set.

The Lions’ day began at 10 a.m. against the Regis College Pride. Emerson entered the game 2-13 on the season and 0-6 in conference matchups, while Regis came in at 9-10 with a 5-4 conference record.

The first set began with an Emerson service error, followed by kills from sophomore outside hitter Luke Roehm and first-year setter Bayden Slavik. The Lions exchanged points with the Pride but repeated missed serves kept them in a two- or three-point hole for most of the game.

Down 23-19, Emerson began a comeback with kills from Pittman and first-year middle blocker Ramsis De Los Santos, but another service error made it 24-21 Regis. A kill and a hitting error later, the Pride took the first set 25-22.

After a three-minute break, both teams returned to the court to continue their battle. Regis opened the set with a kill and went on to capitalize on a series of Emerson errors, going up 12-3. Read called a timeout in an effort to stop the bleeding, but the Pride continued to rally against the Lions, increasing the lead to 21-8. The Lions made a brief run but the deficit was ultimately too big to close, and Regis took the second set 25-22.

The Lions entered the third set with a tweaked lineup, switching senior Josh Elliot from setter to passer and using Slavik as a front- and back-row setter. The shift resulted in better defense, allowing the Lions to get in an offensive rhythm.

“Statistically, [Josh] has been the best passer on the team,” Read said in a postgame interview. “One setter, a little better serve receive and better passing with Josh made sense.”

Slavik, who totaled 34 sets by the end of the game against Regis, said the 5-1 offense allowed him to focus on playing one position instead of dividing his attention between attacking and setting.

“I’m a natural setter—that’s what I really do,” he said. “I feel a lot more comfortable with the 5-1.”

The third set got off to a rocky start on both sides, with Regis and Emerson committing errors on offense and defense. A couple of kills from first-year right-side hitter Jack Miessner got the ball rolling for the Lions, bringing much-needed energy to the gym and the bench.

Senior pin hitter Rory Dobbins tallied two kills and a stuff block—consecutively—and bumped the Lions to the largest lead of the set at 19-14. Regis called a timeout in hopes of minimizing the run, and came within two points of the Lions after a couple of kills and an ace. 

Elliot responded with an ace of his own, followed by a kill from Pittman in the back row. Pittman scored Emerson’s 25th point with a kill from the outside, sending the game to its fourth set.

The Lions came out hot in the fourth set, quickly amassing a five-point lead against the Pride. A series of attacking errors tied the score at 10, and a communication error sent Regis ahead for the first time since early in the third set. The teams exchanged points, staying within two until a kill from Miessner put Emerson ahead 20-17. The Lions maintained the lead for the rest of the set, finishing 25-22 with another kill from Miessner.

Regis and Emerson both appeared to reach peak form in the fifth set, exchanging kills and blocks in a high-intensity offensive duel. Neither team accumulated more than a one-point lead, sending the set to extra points at 15-15. 

A block set Regis up 16-15 but the Pride gave up the ball on a defensive error, settling the score at 16. A pair of service errors evened the playing field once again at 17, but a missed serve from Emerson put the Lions down 18-19. Regis put down a tip, defeating the Lions 19-17 after a riveting fifth set.

Read credited some of the team’s errors to conference-play nerves, adding that the team’s energy “wasn’t where it needed to be.” For him, the loss was just fuel for the afternoon game.

“This is a team we could have beat,” he said. “We should be fired up and use that fire to get ready for the next game.”

After a three-hour break, the Lions returned to the court to face the Colby-Sawyer Chargers. The Chargers entered at 4-11 on the season, having won just one of six conference matchups.

The Lions retained the 5-1 offense for the game against Colby-Sawyer, racking up kills from Roehm, Dobbins, and Pittman to start the set. A series of Emerson errors swung the lead to the Chargers, who made a few errors of their own to even the score at 14-14. A couple of high-energy kills from Slavik and Pittman started an 11-2 run that would end with Emerson clinching the first set 25-16.

The Chargers came back fighting for set two, but Emerson kept it close through a series of hard-fought points. Both teams held their share of leads, but a stuff block from Miessner and Pittman brought the serve to Emerson’s side of the court at 16-15 and kept it there for a five-point Emerson run.

After a series of Colby-Sawyer errors, De Los Santos tallied a kill and an ace, sending Emerson to the service line on match point. The Chargers strung together two points but a missed serve ended their run, yielding the set to Emerson 25-18.

The Lions entered the third set hungry for a sweep, especially after falling in the close-fought match to Regis earlier Saturday morning. Dobbins opened the match with a kill from the middle, which Elliot followed with an ace from the service line. Emerson errors evened the score at 2-2, but Pittman helped the Lions on a four-point run.

Colby-Sawyer responded with a handful of kills and an ace while Emerson battled defensively, keeping within two points of the Chargers before pulling ahead 18-17. A pair of service errors and a couple of kills set the Lions ahead 22-18, and Chargers head coach Scott Fitzgerald called a timeout.

The Chargers returned from the timeout with a newfound sense of determination, logging four kills and a stuff block in a five-point run and pulling ahead 23-22. Emerson fought back with a kill from Miessner and a block from Dobbins but tied things at 24 with a hitting error. A powerful double block from Dobbins and Slavik followed by consecutive attacking errors from the Chargers propelled the Lions through the final points of the matchup. The 27-25 victory contributed to the Lions’ sweep, concluding the 2022 “You Can Play” games.

Slavik finished the day with a team-high 52 assists. He attributed the sweep to an improvement in energy—something Read called for after the Lions’ initial loss to Regis.

“That was the thing we were missing— we didn’t have any fun,” Slavik said of the game against Regis. “When we have fun, we win.” 

Pittman echoed Slavik’s statement, saying the boost in morale helped significantly in the win. He added that the team hopes to keep its energy up and continue improving for the remainder of the season. 

With eight games left to play, Pittman said he’s focused on playing for the team’s seniors and helping to make the end of their careers memorable.

“I want to play my best for them—give them the best record they can have and make sure we’re having the most fun out there,” he said. “We’re looking to improve, we’re looking to get 2 percent better at practice every day and to go out and play the best we possibly can.”