After nearly two years since its last five-set victory, the Stony Brook Volleyball team claimed two such wins in the span of four days, beating Fordham on Tuesday and Fort Wayne on Saturday. The Seawolves dropped the opening match of their homestand in four sets to the American Eagles on Friday night.
With preseason non-conference play at its conclusion, Stony Brook has a record of 4-10, with the record reflective of difficult scheduling early in the season against several power conference and perennial NCAA tournament teams.
Already holding a two-set-to-one lead against the Fordham Rams, the Seawolves slipped behind, 15-5, in the fourth game.
“Refocusing was the biggest thing there,” head coach Coley Pawlikowski said. “Just taking it one point at a time, so at least we can get some momentum to come back.”
Although unable to come back in the set — losing it by a narrower margin of 25-19 — Stony Brook’s refound energy was enough to take control of the deciding fifth set, winning the match by a final line score of 23-25, 25-22, 26-24, 19-25, 15-11.
The Seawolves were able to extend a 9-5 lead via a pair of three-point runs on serves of freshman utility player Leanne Sakowicz and sophomore middle blocker Taylor Wilson. The margin held at three or four the rest of the way, culminating in two Wilson kills — her 11th and 12th of the night — to finish the match off.
“After two five-set wins, we’re feeling pretty confident,” Wilson said.
Sakowicz shined at the service line, rotating in for freshman opposite hitter Maria Poole in the second half. Her team won nine of 15 points on her serve, including five service aces. In college volleyball, the team receiving serve usually has an advantage in the point.
“Maria’s usually a great server for us, but tonight we utilized Leanne in that spot instead,” Pawlikowski said. “She did a great job of coming in and serving aggressively. She was really giving us some energy through her serve.”
On the attack, sophomore middle hitter McKyla Brooks was lethal for the Seawolves, producing 15 kills on 24 attacks, including one spike into the face of an unsuspecting Fordham defender.
Brooks worked well with sophomore setter Morgan Kath, who had a career-best 54 assists, giving her a gaudy total of 146 setups on the three-match homestand.
For the Rams, freshman opposite hitter Olivia Fairchild gave the home team all it could handle, with a match-high 18 kills and five aces of her own. The rookie left-hander ranks eighth in the NCAA with 242 kills this season.
“She’s their go-to hitter,” Wilson said. “They set her almost every ball. Toward the end [of the match], we started to block, we started to stop her, and that was the game changer.”
The style of play differed greatly in the two halves, with the teams combining for 39 digs in the first half and 72 digs in the second half as defense picked up.
Stony Brook freshman libero Kardashia Hitchcock was the match leader with 15 digs. The athletic Alabaman exited the court gingerly in the fourth set with apparent cramping to her left leg, but she re-entered the game.
On Saturday morning against Fort Wayne, Stony Brook came back from a two-set hole at halftime to win the match 21-25, 18-25, 25-19, 25-15, 16-14.
But it was not easy.
Late in the fifth set, the home team trailed 13-11 on the scoreboard. Two points from victory, senior outside hitter Somer Johnson served for Fort Wayne. After Stony Brook failed to receive the ball cleanly, the team produced a weak attack, giving the Matadors a chance to strike.
Fort Wayne was able to run its offense — clean dig, direct pass, well-timed set — for an open spike on the left flank before the Stony Brook block was there to defend. If the golden opportunity were executed, the road team would have three chances to win the match.
But Hitchcock dove for the dig to keep the play alive.
“Oh my god, that was huge,” Brooks said of the dig. Kath took the pass and laid the ball up for freshman Liz Pulver, who pulled Stony Brook within 13-12.
A Kath solo block tied the match at 13-13, before Pulver had two more kills in the final four points to propel her team to the win, the team’s first in five sets since Sept. 20, 2014.
“It was a great team win,” Pulver said. “Everyone stepped up in their position, coming in as a sub, coming in — front row, back row, to serve, whatever. Everyone did their job and did it well.”
The fifth-set drama followed an otherwise dominant second half for the Seawolves; they won the third and fourth games by margins of six and 10.
During the second set, as Stony Brook was slipping further and further behind, Pawlikowski could be heard shouting, “every single point,” encouraging defensive hustle and effort to get back in the match.
Once that came — and it did — Stony Brook had the upper-hand on its foes.
“We’re a different team when we give that effort,” Pawlikowski said. “That’s what we look like when we put forth that effort on every single point.”
Sakowicz excelled in a digging role against the Matadors, scooping out a career-high 18. As a team, Stony Brook out-dug Fort Wayne, 70-54. In the third and fourth games combined, the road team hit a paltry .050.
On offense, Brooks had another strong outing, recording 14 kills on the day. Freshman opposite side hitter Maria Poole added 12, while freshman outside hitter Jordan Gels, the team’s only true six-rotation hitter, scored nine.
Friday night against American, Stony Brook knew it had a difficult task, facing a team that had won 13 of the last 15 Patriot League titles and had beaten Kentucky in the NCAA First Round last season.
The Seawolves fought tightly in the first half, but could not keep up with the Eagles late in the match, falling by a score of 25-21, 20-25, 25-19, 25-15.
Sophomore outside hitter Aleksandra Kazala had an exceptionally dominant match for American, hitting 21 kills while committing just one error. As a team, the Eagles hit .328 on offense.
But at times, particularly in the second set, Stony Brook’s offense was just as, or even more dominant, hitting .484 in that frame.
“We were flowing really well,” Pulver said. “Even if it was a bad pass, the hitters knew what to do or Morgan put us in a really good position.”
Pulver had 13 kills in the match, while Poole had an efficient 12 kills on 19 attacks.
Although the Seawolves let the match slip away in the second half, there were positives to take from a competitive match against such an established, strong program.
“We had a really good focus in Games 1 and 2,” Pawlikowski said. “We just have to learn, against stronger teams, to maintain that focus as the match goes.”
Stony Brook returns to action on Friday, as the team opens America East play in Baltimore against UMBC at 7 p.m.
“After a tough preseason schedule, we’re so ready for conference,” Wilson said. “It’s going to be exciting. People aren’t going to know what to expect on the other side of the net.”