Senior outside hitter Maria Poole jumps to hit the ball over the net at the Stony Brook Volleyball home opener on Sept. 3. In Albany at the American East playoffs on Friday, Poole had the highest number fo kills for Stony Brook at 15. EMMA HARRIS/THE STATESMAN

Two years ago, the Stony Brook volleyball team traveled to the New York state capital as an underdog No. 4 seed to face the No. 1-seeded Albany Great Danes in the semifinals of the America East playoffs. The Seawolves upset their longtime rivals in a straight sweep en route to the conference championship. On Friday, Nov. 22, Stony Brook found themselves in the same situation but could not recapture that magic, falling in four sets to end the team’s bid for a third straight America East title. The Seawolves conclude their season with a 9-17 record, their first under .500 since 2016.

“Thank you to these six seniors who have meant so much to our program,” head coach Kristin Belzung said in a press release. “This isn’t the ending we had in mind but this group brought back-to-back America East Championships to Stony Brook and have been incredible people and members of our University and the athletic department. We know the future is bright and it’s thanks to the foundation they laid.”

The Seawolves were a fierce competitor from the start, closely battling the Great Danes back-and-forth in the first set as neither team held a lead larger than three. With Stony Brook facing their largest deficit of the set down 17-14, six unanswered Seawolves points put them ahead 20-17, with the Great Danes committing three errors and a bad set during that stretch. Redshirt-freshman middle blocker Enitan Omolewa also notched two kills in the run. 

However, Albany responded with five straight of their own to take the lead back, 22-20. Senior outside hitter Liz Pulver cut into the deficit with a kill before freshman outside hitter Amiyah De’Long committed an attack error to put the Great Danes up two again. The Seawolves tied it all up at 23 after kills from senior outside hitter Maria Poole and De’Long, but the Great Danes would take the first set 25-23 after an Omolewa service error and a De’Long attack error.

Having come so close to a first set victory, Stony Brook came out of the gate swinging in set two, taking a quick lead early and never looking back. With a one-point lead, Stony Brook rolled off seven in a row to go up 15-7. Down 18-9, Albany was able to get on a roll and scored five consecutive points to cut the gap to four, but Stony Brook countered their run with the next four points of the set to bring the score to 22-14. The Seawolves tied the match at one set apiece when Pulver’s attack fell past the arms of an Albany defender, winning 25-20.

Stony Brook played sluggishly in the third set. An early 5-3 lead quickly evaporated as the Great Danes embarked on a 9-1 run, feasting off numerous Seawolves attack errors and close calls at the boundaries that went in their favor. Stony Brook was never able to get in an offensive rhythm, with Albany’s aggressive frontcourt blocking successfully rejecting multiple attack attempts. The Great Danes won set three 25-16 as the Seawolves put up a .000 hitting percentage in the frame with eight errors to eight kills.

Playing with their backs against the wall, the Seawolves started slow in set four, forcing Belzung to call her first timeout early and falling behind 9-3. They steadily closed the gap, taking the lead back 19-18 after scoring six of the last seven points. Both teams had trouble with the serve late, and with the Seawolves up 21-20, Omolewa’s serve sailed wide left. Albany redshirt-senior right side hitter Akuabata Okenwa put the Great Danes on top with a kill before Belzung called her final timeout. Poole’s attack landed just outside the boundary, giving Albany a 23-21 lead, but Great Danes sophomore libero Anna Chalupa’s next serve fell short to put the ball back in the Seawolves’ court. It wouldn’t matter, as Albany successfully scored the next two points to win the set 25-22 and the match, three sets to one, putting an end to Stony Brook’s season. The Great Danes were able to avenge old wounds as the Seawolves had eliminated them from the playoffs in both of the last two seasons.

Okenwa led all players with 16 kills, while Poole’s 15 was the highest amongst all Stony Brook players. Pulver and Omolewa also reached double digits with 11 and 10, respectively. On the night, the Seawolves hit .137, committing 28 errors against 51 kills. The Great Danes hit .201, recording more kills and fewer errors in 19 fewer total attacks. Albany also added on five aces and 12 blocks.

Pulver ends the season as the team’s leader in kills with 265. Prior to the tournament, the Seawolves were honored in the America East’s awards as senior setter LeAnne Sakowicz won Setter of the Year and junior libero Kiani Kerstetter won Defensive Specialist of the Year. Sakowicz took home the award for the second straight season, while Kerstetter is the first-ever Stony Brook player to win Defensive Specialist.

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