Before the season, Clark Volleyball was ranked eighth in the NEWMAC. They were projected to miss the playoffs, despite having qualified the previous two years and returning many young, promising players.
“I think we were a little slighted,” said Clark Volleyball head coach and NEWMAC Coach of the Year Mickey Cahoon. “It’s something that we tell ourselves you can’t put a lot of stock into…but I do think you can find a little motivation in trying to prove people wrong.” The team did just that, going 8-2 in the conference and notching the third seed in the NEWMAC Championships.
Clark students took notice of the team’s prowess and packed the stands for Clark’s first-round playoff game against Wellesley. The game went to the fifth set after Clark surrendered a 2-0 lead, but Clark came out of the gates on fire during the fifth set, establishing a 6-2 lead that they did not surrender. The fans were deafening as Clark racked up kill after kill to win the final set 15-8.
“We make jokes that the crowd won us the fifth set,” said setter Rachel Webb (’19). “We came out, and we could hear them, and…oh my gosh. I was almost in tears.” Outside hitter Marina Ramos (‘18) said that the crowd helped her rise to the occasion. “I was just like, ‘These people are so great. Let’s go.’” Ramos had four kills during the early 6-2 run. Her performance was par for the course, as she had a phenomenal season and received first-team all-conference honors.
Clark Volleyball continued to have the results bounce their way in the NEWMAC semifinals on Saturday, Nov. 7. They beat second-seeded Springfield College for the first time in school history, notching a 3-1 victory to avenge their 3-0 loss to the Pride on Oct. 6.
In order to be prepared for Springfield’s strong middle blocking this time around, Cahoon practiced with the team. At approximately six-and-a-half-feet tall, he is significantly taller than any blocker the team has faced. “It took a toll on my body at this point,” said Cahoon, “But it was fun to get out there and play.”
To adjust to the towering Cahoon, players had to hit it away from the middle, as was the strategy against Springfield. “We just tried to swing for deep corners and figure out how to move the ball well. They’re really tall, so we just used deep corners and a lot of different hitters,” said captain outside hitter Shannon Glass-Smythe (‘16).
Solid execution of this offensive plan, along with some strong defense, kept Springfield College out of their rhythm. The Cougars held them to a hitting percentage of 16.6, much lower than their average mark that led all Division III teams. “We probably played the best match that we’ve played all season,” said Cahoon.
Clark ran into its largest obstacle on Sunday Nov. 8 in the final game against defending champions Babson, who had easily handled top-ranked NEWMAC team MIT in three sets the day before. The Beavers were able to defend Clark’s attack to a degree which the Cougars had not yet experienced, and they had trouble responding.
“They had a very substantial block,” said outside hitter and defensive specialist Savannah Sanford (‘17). “It kind of bummed us out. We thought we could, we didn’t give up, but it got to a point where it was like, ‘What do we do?’” Babson held Clark to a hitting percentage of 2.7.
When the Cougar offense wasn’t humming, it made it harder for everyone to hold things together. “We didn’t just break down hitting-wise, we broke down in our back row as well,” said libero Mia Cattaneo (‘17). “I think they had more digs than us, and usually we outdig the other team.” Cattaneo finished fourth in the NEWMAC in digs per set and made all-conference second-team.
The mood for the team was somber after the game. “I remember right after, I turned to [outside hitter] Ana [Mercado (‘19)] and said, ‘It’s not fair.’ We were in it, we worked so hard this season…and it just didn’t seem fair that they won,” said Sanford. “It was a sad moment,” said Glass-Smythe, “I cried, personally, because it was my last game.”
“There was a lot of crying,” said Sanford, “right afterwards, a couple people texted in our group chat, and everyone was like, ‘We played extremely hard, we did whatever we could do, and we need to be proud of ourselves and remember the feeling of winning.’”
A few days removed from the loss, members of the team are “still bummed,” according to Sanford, but are looking forward to next fall. “At one point I was like, ‘I can’t be heartbroken for too long because I’ve got next season to train for,’” said Webb. “You look at the past and you learn from it. I’m majoring in history, you look at it, you go, ‘Wow that kind of sucked,’ and you keep going.”
Sanford, a fan of Major League Baseball, compared the Clark Volleyball to the Kansas City Royals, who lost to her hometown team, the San Francisco Giants, in the 2014 World Series. “The Giants were a powerhouse, kind of like Babson, and the Royals were inexperienced and lost to them, but the Royals won the next year.”
“The main takeaway is that we can do it…You just have to take something from this, and it’s going to strengthen us,” said Sanford. Cahoon echoed this belief, “This year, we had the depth, and we had the confidence to play with anyone on any given day,” he said.
Needless to say, the team expects to return to the playoffs next season, and is luckily only losing one player to graduation, albeit an important one in Glass-Smythe. The NEWMAC preseason rankings will probably project them to make the playoffs next year. “If they don’t, then we’ll just prove them wrong again,” said Ramos, “It’s great to do that.”