Women’s volleyball seniors reflect on shortened careers

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Media: Rachel Culver

Senior Grace Tepper (right) totaled 1,024 kills through her three seasons with the women’s volleyball team.

By Tyler Foy

Last fall, the women’s volleyball team shocked the conference. In the two games leading up to their first ever NEWMAC championship game, in their first ever NEWMAC playoff run, they fought back from being two sets down and won as underdogs. 

Seniors Albany Alexander and Grace Tepper thought they would get the chance to return to the playoffs this year and capture the team’s first championship. But on Friday, July 17, the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference unanimously voted to suspend the conference due to the pandemic, ending the two captains’ final seasons. 

“I was under the impression that things would go back to normal in the fall, into the normal pattern that they have for the past three years,” Tepper said in an interview with The Beacon. “But when the summer started to go on, Coach Read would email us frequently, and he said that there were possibilities but was ultimately optimistic like the rest of us were. So to get notice that the NEWMAC or that Emerson had just basically removed itself from possible play was a big shock. I really didn’t expect it.”

As the only team members from this year’s graduating class, Tepper and Alexander have been leading a young team on the court and helping the program reach new heights. 

In Tepper’s first season, she had 267 kills, 11 assists, 32 aces, 16 blocks and 219 digs. Her 3.18 kills per set ranked sixth in NEWMAC. And in Alexander’s first season, she posted 146 kills, four assists, 59 digs, 43 blocks and two aces. Two seasons later, as juniors, Albany made the NEWMAC Academic All-Conference team for the third straight year, and Tepper became the first player in the program to be named to the NEWMAC First Team All-Conference. 

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Head coach Ben Read said the girls joined the team with only a small handful of other recruits.  

“They were the smallest recruiting class I’ve had at Emerson,” head coach Ben Read said in an interview with the Beacon. “But it’s kind of by design. We weren’t trying to go ahead and just build that. We are trying to bring people in to make our team bigger. We were trying to bring people in that can impact the program.” 

Read said Tepper and Alexander led by example as they pushed the team to achieve more success than the program had ever seen before. 

“They lead by example both on and off the court and have helped reshape our culture,” Read said. “They brought positive attitudes, the kind of fun, easygoing personalities, but the competitive drive they have on the court has been huge. We definitely would not have been able to accomplish what we have, in recent years, mainly last year…without both of them.” 

Junior outside hitter Carolyn Vaimoso said having Tepper and Alexander as leaders helped all the players become friends as well as teammates.

“They taught me that it’s not about just being on a team, they really helped the team be best friends and keep a good environment,” Vaimoso said. “Because if we have an environment that is friendly and loving, then it would definitely help us be better on the court.”

As teammates, Tepper and Alexander said they clicked and complimented each other very well. Off the court, they both were attracted to Emerson because of its reputation as a well-regarded journalism school. In the team, being the only two in their recruitment class brought them close together. 

“When it comes to Division III sports, a lot of people play and figure out it isn’t for them,” said Tepper. “For Albany and I, it was always just the two of us in our class. And we’ve literally been through all of it together. So it’s really nice to be a captain alongside her. I just knew it was going to work out really well. And that we would compliment each other in different ways of leadership and different ways of communicating.” 

Alexander said that they were able to evenly distribute the responsibilities of the captain role, which made the task easier. 

“I was so grateful to be captain with Grace,” Alexander said. “Grace and I really worked together. She is great at being a person that the girls can come to if they have a problem. We actually ended up having a great split of different girls that each of us connected with the best, and we would reach out to check in with their mental health, check in with how they’re feeling about games, struggling with how they’re feeling about practices.”

During her first two seasons with the team, Vaimoso said having Alexander and Tepper helped keep her in the right place mentally on the court.

“A lot of times, I’ll feel like a chicken with its head cut off,” Vaimoso said. “And like Grace and Albany are the ones that usually find it and place it right back on my body. They’re really good at keeping me and others sane.”

Both seniors’ favorite memories with the team came during last season’s playoff run. 

Alexander was battling an ankle injury as the team headed into last season’s playoffs. The Lions entered the matchup as the No. 6 seed against a No. 3 seeded MIT team that had beaten them in straight sets earlier in the season—and they quickly fell down in the game. 

But in what Alexander said was her favorite moment as a member of the Lions, the team battled back and won three straight sets with their backs against the wall, capturing their first playoff victory. 

“MIT has always been the team that I really wanted to beat, just because they always have really tall girls on the team,” Alexander said. “[MIT]’s always been the most challenging team, for me personally. I also had a really bad ankle injury and was unsure if I would make it back …in the end, I got to get back on the court and help my team win the game as underdogs.”

Tepper’s favorite moment from her time the team came in the following game, and it came with a milestone. While the Lions once again fell down two sets to none to Wellesley College in the semifinals, Tepper recorded her 1,000th career kill, shortly before the team did the unthinkable and fought all the way back to advance to their first ever NEWMAC championship.

“An individual moment like that always means more when it plays a bigger role in a team setting,” Tepper said. “The game was amazing, because we had never made it that far. We were so behind. And we came back to win the last three sets, which looked I mean, basically impossible. We had so much fun doing it and it was my favorite moment at Emerson.”

Although the season is canceled, the team has been meeting over Zoom and started team workouts this week.  

Tepper is still trying to make an impact on the players around her and keep connections with the team. When asked to reflect on her time as a Lion she said it’s been an invaluable experience.

“When it comes to playing volleyball at Emerson, it’s definitely been hard, but it’s been so rewarding,” Tepper said. “The people that I’ve met and the experiences that I’ve been through with the team, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”                

Alexander is set to graduate in December and has opted out of team activities. Although she will not be participating with the other girls this fall, she said she’s proud of the mark she has left on the team in the past three years. 

“I started volleyball later than most girls did, I started in ninth grade, and my dream was to catch up to the other girls that were in my club, but then also to play college. I went after it,” Alexander said. “I wanted to just enjoy my time playing in college, and I feel like I got to do that. I definitely wish I could have had another season, but I feel like I entered a program and left it better than I found it.”