By Shaun Chornobroff
The Rider-UCLA NCAA Tournament matchup wasn’t Superman versus Batman or Godzilla versus Kong. If anything, it was David versus Goliath.
The Broncs were one of the hottest teams in the nation riding into the matchup, but UCLA is not a normal first-round NCAA Tournament opponent in any year, much less for a team coming out of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC).
The Broncs fell victim to the prowess of the four-time national champions in the match, getting swept in all three sets and never scoring more than 12 points in a single set.
“UCLA is really, really good. They’re really, really big, they’re very athletic,” Head Coach Jeff Rotondo said. “We knew that going in, but it’s one thing to see that on film and another to see it right in front of you… They were having fun out there, they weren’t letting the moment ruin their morale or anything like that, even though UCLA was beating us up pretty good.”
The Broncs were outmatched from the get-go and made many errors, particularly on serves. But that didn’t bother Head Coach Jeff Rotondo. The errors were part of a necessary risk for him to try and upset one of college volleyball’s perennial powers.
“We were okay with the misserves tonight,” the second-year head coach said. “We were trying to serve a little bit more aggressively… We were okay with going a little bit higher error because if we served too easy to UCLA, they were going to side-out very easily anyway, so we had to take a little bit more risk on the serves.”
Junior setter Anilee Sher may have had only 13 assists in the game, but the MAAC Tournament MVP made the most of a lot of poor situations, putting her hitters in great positions to make plays.
“I know she was really looking forward to competing in this match because there’s some history with her dad playing at UCLA… [Anilee] is always a gamer anyway, I never have to worry about her effort,” a complimentary Rotondo said of his star setter. “She did really well, I think she did put our hitters in some really good positions tonight.”
The junior setter made several great passes that may have not been rewarded in the stat sheet, but showed up on film. Despite her great plays, Sher learned that she still had a lot to improve on as a setter in the defeat.
“Honestly, I just want to be more deceptive as a setter, I want to be able to get my hitters one-on-one a lot more,” Sher said. “Because I noticed from the UCLA setters they are very calm, they’re very calm and patient with their balls and they’re very good at reading other designs and seeing where everyone’s going.”
Despite the loss, Rotondo emphasized that he is nothing but pleased with his team for overcoming adversity to make history.
“Obviously, we’re thrilled to have this opportunity, first and foremost, especially in a really tough year for the athletes. We’re really proud of the program to get here, proud for the players, and really just happy to see them get a chance to experience this,” Rotundo said. “We got a chance to see one of the best teams in the nation tonight and see what that looks like, so again just a little bit of awareness and a lot of pride that we were able to do this and get these athletes here to experience this.”
A trip to the NCAA Tournament is the conclusion and reward for what has been a unique season, to say the least. After losing four of its first five matches, Rider went on a hot streak for the ages, winning its last six matches en route to the MAAC Tournament title and the right to play on the biggest stage the sport offers at the collegiate level.
“It was definitely an earned season,” Sher explained. “I would say we had to make a lot of sacrifices, we had to make a lot of adjustments and give up a lot of things. But we did it because we wanted to be in this position.”
Sher, Rotundo and the rest of the Broncs will play again in the fall of 2021 with a lot of momentum and a desire to once again earn the title of MAAC Champions.