By Luke Lombardi
The Rider volleyball team will be making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 25 years against UCLA on April 14 at 10:30 p.m.
Rider earned their way into the tournament by winning the MAAC championship against Canisius 3-1 for the first time in conference history. They also defeated Manhattan and Siena on their way to the conference championship. Head coach Jeff Rotundo and his staff were able to accomplish this historic feat in just their second year at Rider.
This is Rider’s first time playing on the national stage in a long time, so the players are excited about the historic opportunity.
“Honestly, just making history for Rider, I’m very happy to be a part of and making it to the NCAA tournament is once in a lifetime and not everyone makes it there,” sophomore opposite hitter Morgan Romano said. “I’ve always dreamed about going there since I was a little girl and just now it’s real and being there is not even going to feel real. It’s crazy to think about.”
Rotundo gave the team time to celebrate the championship until they found out their opponent for the upcoming game.
“I think it was funny because as we were celebrating on the floor in Albany, I feel like they were trying to close the building around us. They were like ‘Alright, you need to leave now.’ so we obviously celebrated a good amount up there,” Rotundo said. “When we left, we obviously gave them Sunday. We were off on Monday, but once we found out on Sunday about UCLA, my next message to them was ‘Hey, we’re going to be doing the scout meeting when we get out there in Omaha, Nebraska on Monday and Tuesday, but start watching film on your own and that should start today and start getting familiar with the opponent.’”
One interesting note about the matchup against UCLA is junior setter Anilee Sherr’s family connection.
Sherr’s father played for UCLA in college, so this matchup is special for her. She explained, “I was super emotional just because my dad played at UCLA, so it kind of felt full circle for me, but we were just so excited. Playing a great program like UCLA is so exciting and I think everyone was just shocked for a second because just hearing that we’re going to play a program like that is insane, but we were definitely excited and ready to get to work and see what we could do against them.”
Going into Selection Sunday, Rider was excited but not scared.
“We kind of knew we were going to get a pretty good program. Usually, a MAAC [team] ends up with a Power 5 school. You’re looking at a Minnesota [or] Michigan. You’re going to get one of those schools, but we ended up getting a PAC-12 school which is kind of awesome,” Rotundo said. “Obviously, we were excited we got such a historic program and they’ve won the national championship four times and here we are, Rider in New Jersey going up to play a four-time national champion, so it’ll be kind of cool.”
Coming out of the conference tournament, Romano led the team in both kills and points. When asked if she feels any pressure to be one of the best players on the court, she answered, “I feel like I always need to do the best that I can and I feel like I always have people watching and looking up to me and that’s something that I really value. The freshmen looking up to me is something that means a lot to me, to have some of them tell me they look up to me and some of them might not, but I like to be a good role model for them. Even the older girls, I like to show them I can do this and I can do what they can do.”
Rider is going into the match as an obvious underdog, but many on the team see that as an advantage.
“I think they probably have a lot more pressure than we do. They’re expected to win. They’re expected to go pretty far in the tournament, so for us, it’s kind of just fun for us to go out there and play freely and just see how far we can push ourselves and how far we can push them. I don’t think we feel any pressure. I think we’re ready to put in the work,” Sherr said.
The Broncs peaked at the right time and are in the midst of a six-match winning streak heading into the tournament.
“I think a winning streak means a lot, but we can’t let that get in our head. It’s a new opponent, so we need to go out and play our game, control what we can control and just focus on us, but it definitely gives us a lot of energy and momentum going in just knowing that we’re on a good streak right now,” Romano said.
The trio of Sherr, Rotundo and Romano agreed the biggest weakness for Rider heading into the matchup was the size factor.
“I just think right now that they’re 6’4, 6’3. Right now, our weakness could be that they’re probably playing at maybe a foot higher along the net than we are used to,” Rotundo said. “Now again, we have kids that can touch pretty high like 9’9, 9’10 [or] 9’11, but they have kids that can touch 10’2, 10’3 [or] 10’4 on a consistent basis or maybe even higher than that. For us, we’re just talking about some things we’re going to have to do a little bit differently on the block phase and defensive phase to counter that advantage they’re going to have on length and contact point.”
On the flip side, Rider also has some advantages. Rotundo explained, “Right now I hope that we can find a way to serve them really tough. Now again, they see really difficult serving teams in the PAC-12 with Oregon and USC and Oregon State. These are all good serving teams. We’re working on some things this week to try and be a little bit more difficult of a serving team. We were a very good serving team this year, anyway. We’re going to try and be a top-notch serving team. We go out there and maybe see if we can get them into some situations with their serve/receive, which is going to be difficult because they’re really good.”