Men’s volleyball team looking for win in first game since 2020

Mens+volleyball+player+receiving+a+serve+at+practice+on+Jan.+25%2C+2022

Photo: Sydney Ciardi

Men’s volleyball player receiving a serve at practice on Jan. 25, 2022

By Tyler Foy, Sports Editor

The men’s volleyball team is preparing to take on Nichols College on Thursday night for its season opener—which, incidentally, will be the team’s first match since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago.

Preseason preparations began on Jan. 11, with the team gears up for its first game in 699 days. Head Coach Benjamin Read said the team is lacking in depth due to its small roster size, which made early sessions difficult. 

“The first week and a half we had four to six kids in each practice because people [couldn’t] return to play and [because of] COVID and everything else,” Read said. 

Read said the team’s limited depth challenged its ability to play practice scrimmages. Instead, it adapted to the circumstances and started focusing on developing individual players. 

“We’ve got a serve machine that can serve the ball somewhere 60 something miles per hour, which is about as fast as you’re going to see at the conference,” Read said. “We get creative [with] what we’re doing.”

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The first practices were centered around building chemistry—a difficult task for a team split up by sickness and travel concerns. Nevertheless, senior setter Josh Elliot is confident in the team’s competitive mindset.

“[Practice has] just been trying different lineups and getting the team to gel,” Elliot said. “I’m not worried about the talent and the skill of everybody. They’re all really good. It’s just we haven’t really played together.”

“And a lot of them haven’t played in a college game yet,” he added.

The 2020 men’s volleyball season was shut down due to the pandemic; the team’s last game was a loss to Lasell University on Feb. 28, 2020, ending the season with a 5-7 record.

Players from the class of 2020 and 2021 effectively lost their seasons. The team had a short-lived group of practices last winter before being put on hold due to COVID-19 concerns.

Elliot, who saw his second season disappear and his collegiate career shortened, said he worried about losing it completely.

“Two of my closest friends in the past on the team were Lucas Raagas, who was a senior my sophomore year, and Sam Willinger, who was a senior last year,” he said. “I saw them lose their seasons. I completely understand how crushing it is. I was pretty worried about it, especially with Omicron and everything.”

Years of pandemic-related season postponements and cancellations mean many teams across the nations are young and inexperienced. With only three players returning from previous years, Emerson is no different.

“It’s a new group of guys for the most part,” Read said. “It’s going to be really interesting because pretty much 90 percent of the guys on the court when we play on Thursday have never represented Emerson before in a game. It’ll be a little weird—but pretty cool too.” 

Elliot, who was named team captain, has been working to help new players adapt to the sport at the collegiate level.

“The biggest difference with volleyball from playing in high school and playing in college is the speed of the game,” Elliot said. “Everything speeds up. Everybody’s pretty big and athletic. You have to really get a lot smarter.”

Sophomore middle and opposite Neiko Pittman will make his Emerson debut alongside seven other Lions on Thursday night. He said he will rely on his previous volleyball experience while trying to create a positive presence on the court.

“I’m a little nervous because I haven’t played in two years,” Pittman said. “At the same time, I’ve been doing this forever. I know how to play volleyball. It’s the same strategies, same things you have to do on the court—it’s just a different team. It’s a different environment. I’m just going to do my best to keep the energy up for the team.”

The young talent on the team has also created a more dynamic squad, Read said.

“They’re working hard,” Read said. “We make it enjoyable, but they’re a competitive group and they really want to go ahead and show they belong near the top of the conference.”

The team hopes to start its season on the right foot with a win. The team, which plays in the Great Northwest Athletic League, made the playoff semi-finals once under Read, who hopes to make history in the league again this season. 

“We’re looking to go in and do the best we can,” Read said. “We’ve come out with a winning record for the first time in a long time and talked about expectations coming to the season, and we would like to host a playoff game. We’ve never done that before.”