After missing the America East playoffs for the first time since 2016, the Stony Brook volleyball team is ready to climb back to the top of the conference standings.
When head coach Kristin Belzung joined Stony Brook in 2017, the Seawolves found immediate success with back-to-back America East championships in her first two years. Stony Brook again reached the postseason in 2019, but fell in the semifinals to Albany.
Belzung faced significant roster turnover heading into the 2020 season, as eight players departed following the 2019 season, including the graduation of six seniors.
Stony Brook added five freshmen in 2020 and they all played a significant role throughout the season. The Seawolves counted on their young players for production, as three freshmen played at least 50 out of 56 sets and accounted for four of the team’s top five blockers.
Stony Brook had difficulty overcoming its 0-5 start to the 2020 season, which Belzung attributes to the team’s inexperience. The Seawolves also dealt with several players going in and out of quarantine and isolation protocols throughout the season.
“I think everybody handled that as best they could, but trying to mix and match pieces all the time is hard,” Belzung said in an interview with The Statesman. “We kind of bought into the fact that it was going to be a mix and match game the whole spring and settled into that being the case.”
Along with constantly changing the players on the court, COVID-19 protocols made it difficult for freshmen to get to know their teammates.
“It was just hard to connect with everybody else on the team because we couldn’t use our locker room and do stuff like that,” sophomore setter Torri Henry said. “Since we played in masks, we couldn’t see facial expressions, so that was hard, too.”
Despite these obstacles, the Seawolves came together to win seven of their last 10 matches for a 7-8 (7-5 AE) record. While Stony Brook failed to make the playoffs for the first time in Belzung’s tenure, the young team showed what it’s capable of in its second half push.
The Seawolves will have a chance to build on their strong finish, as all of their players from the spring season return for the fall. Belzung thinks this continuity will be key for the Seawolves this season.
Getting players acclimated to the system takes time, but the Seawolves don’t have to worry much about that this year. They did add three new freshmen, but these players won’t be rushed into major roles the way freshmen were in the spring.
“This year, we’re ready to hit the ground running a little bit faster than last year where it kind of felt like everybody was new,” Belzung said. “It’s allowed us to start at a higher level and progress from there.”
Another key for this team is that the COVID-19 protocols are more relaxed this season, allowing for the players to really get to know each other. Henry said she thought the team was tight knit in the spring, but now that she’s had time in the summer and early in the fall season to spend time with her teammates, she realizes just how much she missed out during her freshman year.
Getting back to a normal schedule has also been beneficial for the Seawolves.
“It feels better just to play volleyball normally again and to have a regular season, preseason, and conference games coming up,” redshirt junior middle blocker Enitan Omolewa said.
The Seawolves are off to another slow start at 4-6 early in the fall, but they’ve been generally more competitive than they were during their 0-5 start last season.
In the spring, Omolewa led the Seawolves with 32 blocks while Henry recorded a team-high 413 assists. They’ve both picked up where they left off, with Henry again leading the team in assists and Omolewa leading in points and blocks and being named America East Player of the Week on Sept. 7.
Despite their individual accomplishments, Omolewa and Henry are focused on getting back to winning.
“I don’t pay attention to whatever’s going on individually or outside of our team because if we don’t succeed as a team, it really doesn’t matter,” Henry said.
Belzung says that discipline and defensive issues have plagued the Seawolves this season, but they’re working towards cleaning those problems up.
“I’m okay with where we’re at,” Belzung said. “Obviously, I’d like to have more wins, but I think the progress that we’re making as a program is going to put us in a good position to win the America East championship.”
Sophomore outside hitter Leoni Kunz has even higher expectations for the Seawolves.
“I think last year we had the ability to win every game and I expect us to do so this year,” Kunz said.
Kunz had a major impact as a freshman in the spring, as she led the team in points and kills. She is leading the team with 70 kills through the team’s first seven games and while she knows the Seawolves are off to a rocky start, she’s not worried about the past.
“We just need to follow our game plan, work hard in practice and compete,” Kunz said. “As long as we do that, I really trust that we could win all our games.
Stony Brook has the benefit of a longer season to overcome their slow start and there’s no reason to doubt this squad considering the run it went on at the end of the spring season. Kunz, Omolewa and Henry are looking to be consistent contributors again, but the Seawolves need to play as a unit if they’re going to make a run at an America East championship.
The Seawolves recently hosted the Stony Brook Invitational and will head off to College Park for the Maryland Tournament. These tournaments are good opportunities for the Seawolves to tighten things up before conference play starts on Sept. 25 at UMBC.
“We still have a couple of weeks to shore things up,” Omolewa said. “But I think if you see us in two weeks, we should be back to Stony Brook volleyball — the best team in America East.”