Entering 2019 season play, the Stony Brook women’s volleyball team had many reasons to be optimistic about their performance. However, a less than stellar start to head coach Kristin Belzung’s third season at the helm has raised questions about whether or not the Seawolves are capable of living up to expectations.
On Aug. 19, the America East released its annual preseason poll, which was voted on by the conference’s head coaches. Stony Brook was named the favorite to win by a large margin, earning five out of a possible six first-place votes and totaling 25 points, six ahead of second-place Albany. To compare, the gap between the second and fifth place in the polling was seven points.
Since Belzung was named to the head coach position in January 2017, taking over for Coley Pawlikowski, the Seawolves have never missed the NCAA Tournament. Belzung’s tenure so far has been marked by many memorable moments. During the 2017 season, Stony Brook barely snuck into the America East Tournament without a winning conference record as the fourth seed before sweeping both first-seeded Albany and third-seeded Binghamton as the underdog to reach its first NCAA Tournament in program history.
Then, last year, the Seawolves historically finished a perfect 12–0 in conference play, capturing their first America East regular-season title since 2007 and becoming the first America East school to report an undefeated conference record since 2009. Hosting the conference tournament on its home court, the Pritchard Gymnasium roared when Stony Brook knocked off Albany in the finals to go a spotless 2-for-2 in NCAA Tournament appearances under Belzung’s leadership. “This is the start of a dynasty here. Stony Brook Volleyball is only going to go up from here and I can not wait,” then-junior middle blocker Kendra Harlow said moments after earning the tournament berth.
But, that was 10 months ago, and in the present, Stony Brook finds itself struggling in early competition with a 1-6 record. A hard-fought win on Saturday, Sept. 7 gave the Seawolves their first victory of the season as they took the Georgetown Hoyas to five sets in Washington D.C., going back and forth before finally seizing the win on a rousing kill by senior outside hitter Liz Pulver to win the frame 19-17.
At one point in the fifth set, Stony Brook found itself down 8-2, and it looked as if another winnable match had slipped out of the team’s hands. However, the Seawolves found its composure and rallied to string together six points in a row, tying up the set. The win snapped the six-game losing streak that opened 2019, which was marked by both several close calls and multiple blowout sets.
“We are still laying the foundation for our season and I’m proud of our group for making a big stride in fighting for this win,” Belzung said in a press release following the Georgetown victory. “It was gutsy to stay composed in tight situation and execute down the stretch and we will continue to build from here. We are looking forward to having a week to train before heading to another tough tournament at Florida State.”
Stony Brook’s early-season struggles can be attributed to a lack of offensive rhythm, and the team has had trouble making quality first contacts as well as landing their kill attempts. Overall, the team is hitting at a .189 mark, compared to last season’s .212 non-conference percentage. It has become apparent that the Seawolves are reeling from the graduations of middle blocker McKyla Brooks and outsider hitter Emily Costello; the duo occupied the top two slots in kills on the team during both of its 2017 and 2018 NCAA Tournament seasons and was named to the All-Conference First Team. That is 623 kills from last season that Stony Brook will need to replace this year.
Still, the Seawolves have retained a ton of talent, including All-Conference Second Team senior outside hitter Maria Poole and reigning America East Setter of the Year, senior LeAnne Sakowicz. There is a strong veteran presence to this squad, and it is important for Stony Brook’s seasoned players to take on a leadership role and help weather the team through the storm. So far this season, seniors Pulver and Harlow have been some of the Seawolves’ most potent offensive weapons.
On the defensive side of the ball, Stony Brook has experienced difficulty defending its opponents’ attack, recording an average of three fewer digs per set so far this season compared to 2018, as well as exhibiting less successful blocking. Junior libero Kiani Kerstetter has been an impressive defender so far this year, leading the team with 103 digs whereas the next closest teammate has 37. Harlow has also picked up where she left off last year, holding the team lead in blocks with 17 after finishing with 87 in 2018.
There is a precedent for America East teams performing poorly in non-conference play and suddenly finding their rhythm once the conference contests start. In 2017, the Albany Great Danes ended their non-conference slate staring at a 0-12 record but won the conference regular-season title by going 11-1 in America East play, ending on a ten-game winning streak.
While losing six straight games to begin the season is a less than ideal start, there is still enough time for Stony Brook to iron out their kinks in non-conference play before playing at a top-level during the America East matches that actually determine whether or not the team will return to the NCAA Tournament in 2019. If the Seawolves want to secure the elusive three-peat, they will need the veteran talent to take lead and help step up their game.
Player to Watch: Kendra Harlow (17). As one of six seniors on the team this season, Harlow will be counted on to provide veteran leadership. Harlow, who finished 2018 fourth on the team in kills and second in blocks, has begun this year as one of the Seawolves’ best players on both sides of the ball. Her .311 hitting percentage is the highest on the team amongst players with at least 30 attempts, while her 51 kills rank second and her 17 blocks rank first.