Senior middle blocker McKyla Brooks jumps to spike the ball in a 2017 game against Binghamton. The Seawolves have been undefeated this season against America East Conference rivals. GARY GHAYRAT/STATESMAN FILE

Stony Brook Volleyball has risen to unprecedented heights following its historic undefeated season against America East Conference rivals. The team, which is 19-8 overall, tied a conference record by becoming only the second to finish the season 12-0, with the 2008 Albany Great Danes being the first.

Rather than focus on the impressive season, head coach Kristin Belzung has directed the Seawolves to remain steadfast on the task at hand ─ winning the conference championship.

“Looking back, we knew we had the pieces,” Belzung said. “We knew we had the pieces and we just had to put it together. Credit the girls for walking in the gym every day and working to get better.”

The team emphasized the motto of “trust the process” in the gym throughout the season to much success, winning their last 15 games. The Seawolves excelled on the hardwood by sweeping conference rivals in nine out of their 12 contests. They swept five of the six teams at least once this season, winning sets by an average of seven points.

Stony Brook was tabbed to clinch the third seed in the America East Coaches Preseason Poll behind Albany and New Hampshire, despite entering as the defending champions. The Seawolves fired back on the court ─ in what served as a sweet bit of irony ─ defeating the Great Danes and the Wildcats to clinch a playoff berth and host the tournament, respectively.

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“Being ranked third really put a chip on our shoulder,” junior middle blocker Kendra Harlow said. “We just wanted to come out and prove people wrong.”  

Belzung and her coaching staff have made advancing to playoffs for the second straight year look easy. The team has carried over the confidence earned after claiming their first America East title off back-to-back sweeps over Albany and Binghamton.

“One of the things I thought winning the tournament [last year] did for us was it gave a huge boost of confidence,” Belzung said. “I haven’t seen us get punched in the mouth and stay down [this season]. We bounced back and stayed confident. They know that they are going to do their responsibilities and part of that is holding themselves accountable on the court and that’s one of the things that has allowed us to have success.”

Belzung has gained resolute support overall from fans, athletic directors and former coaches. Teresa Tiso, a Stony Brook Hall of Famer who is the winningest volleyball coach in school history with 667 wins, cited how influential the coaching has been for the team’s success.

“It has been so incredible to watch them advance [to the playoffs] and get better,” Tiso said. “This young coaching staff is outstanding 一 I could tell that from the very beginning. It is also about how positive the team is and how they buy into their system especially when you just come into a program.”

Stony Brook spearheaded the conference with a .263 hitting percentage and averaged over 14.5 kills per set. The authoritative veteran duo of graduate outside hitter Emily Costello and senior middle blocker McKyla Brooks topped the team with 283 kills each. The Seawolves have also benefited from having a strong junior core of blockers and backs that maintained the scoring pace against jaded defenses.

“It’s just exciting that we are all competitive and we all have the same mindset,” Brooks said. “Working with each other and our relationship with each other has created a great atmosphere. The system has been working and now we are competing more out of it.”  

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Junior setter LeAnne Sakowicz commanded the tempo of the offense throughout the season, finishing with 1,008 assists while averaging over 10 per set. Sakowicz was the only conference player to finish with quadruple digits, ranking 81st in the NCAA. Sakowicz set a new single-season team-record by winning eight America East Setter of the Year awards but humbly cited her teammates as the reason for her success.

“My teammates make my job so easy,” Sakowicz said. “Our defense is killer and we have such a balanced offense. I wouldn’t be anywhere I am now with without my teammates.”

Freshman libero Sabrina Patriciello steered the Seawolves on services and led the conference with 20 service aces to round out an improved backcourt. Junior defensive specialist Kardasia Hitchcock and sophomore libero/defensive specialist Kiani Kerstetter played substantial defense, surrendering the lowest amount of kills, assists and aces in the America East.

“We take a little bit of pride in the fact that we dig everything,” Belzung said. “We try to dig to be able to convert into to kills. A big emphasis towards the end of the season has been to dig quality balls so that we are able to score in transition.”

Stony Brook’s first challenger will be the No.4-ranked Hartford Hawks. The Hawks clinched the seed despite being the only team under .500 (4-8) but barely edged out the rest of the conference, which finished 3-9. The Seawolves have continued to intensely prepare in the hopes of avoiding another fourth seed playing spoiler, despite the conference dominance.

“I don’t really care what seed we are ─ everyone is 0-0,” Belzung said. “We got to go out and play a really good Hartford team on Friday. When you go out here on Friday it is the court, the net, the ball and the teams; whoever completes the hardest on Friday will win.

Stony Brook will host Hartford in an America East Semifinals matchup on Friday, Nov. 16 at 6:30 p.m. in the Pritchard Gymnasium.

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