By Dylan Manfre
It came, it saw and it conquered.
If there was one word to describe the match, Head Coach Jeff Rotondo said the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) championship game was “exhilarating.”
After four incredibly intense sets, two of which went deeper than 25 points, the volleyball team made history winning its first MAAC title in program history, defeating Canisius 3-1 on April 3.
The win came under the strangest set of circumstances, given how the coronavirus pandemic altered the season.
With the teams heading into a tie at 24, Canisius’ Ella Loussia served the ball straight into the net, sending the match point to Rider. The championship was then decided on a challenge of all things as if the season was not unimaginable enough.
Junior outside hitter Jillian Chan had one of her two aces of the day, but Canisius saw something else.
Canisius had two options to challenge. One; whether or not Chan’s foot crossed the service line before she hit the ball or two; if senior outside Ali Ward committed a net violation, neither of which second-year head coach Jeff Rotondo said there was credible evidence for a case.
“It wouldn’t have mattered because Ali didn’t touch the ball anyway,” Rotondo said. “We just had to wait for the challenge before we could celebrate but I think [Chan] was safe by an inch or two, it was close, but she was definitely not over the line.”
The official pointed in Rider’s direction and the Broncs became champions after a valiant four-set effort.
Sophomore opposite hitter Morgan Romano showed the rest of the league why she is one of the MAAC’s most dangerous hitters in the match. The reigning Rookie of the Year finished with 24 kills and Canisius simply could not answer to a spike of such voracity. Rotondo even said that during a match against Siena, one of Romano’s spikes struck a Siena player in her shoulder and she had to get checked out by the trainer.
“It’s extremely hard [to defend] because it gets you so fast,” Rotondo said. “It almost hits you like a medicine ball, but it’s really hard to control.”
Something that Rotondo, the meticulous preparer, could not anticipate for in his scouting was running out of substitutions. He was forced to put some of his shortest players in, including defensive specialists sophomore Pamela Loh (5-foot-3) and sophomore Alicia Iafrate (5-foot-7), on the front line, an unconventional move that he could not have forseen
“It was really about focusing on ‘Hey, let’s get the ball to this kid on the serve,’” Rotondo said. “And hopefully they’re in a bad position. The weird thing is, we see that in practice, both Pam and Alicia can actually hit the ball, they’re just not going to give you much on the block.”
Junior setter Anilee Sher, who will play on the Israeli senior national team this summer, was named MAAC Championship MVP for her efforts. She had a whopping 58 assists, 15 digs and six service aces.
“It was awesome,” Sher said. “I would give that award to my team because I can’t do what I do or put up the numbers that I do without them.”
How did Rider get here?
It started on March 31 when 11-time MAAC champion, Fairfield, withdrew from the tournament because of a positive COVID-19 test within its program, thus allowing no. 8 Siena to advance to the semifinals and meet Rider.
The Broncs swept Manhattan and looked like a team poised for a deep tournament run winning the sets 25-22, 25-21 and 25-14. Then came Siena which put some real pressure on Rider, especially in the second set.
For being the only team the Broncs did not face in the regular season, extensive preparation needed to be done. Rotondo said he stayed up until 12:30 a.m. meticulously scouting the Saints for their weaknesses.
Rider ran its offense through sophomore middle hitter Morgan Koch, who had her best match of the tournament, finishing with 11 kills on 19 attempts. She agreed that the second set in the match gave the Broncs the most trouble.
“We were just making more errors,” Koch said. “If you look at the numbers, they were just hitting cleaner. The shots we were going for — we were going for more things, so missing wide or missing by a few inches — so just the fact we were still aggressive but … we weren’t getting those balls in like we had been in the first set.”
Opportunitiess like these are why Rotondo coaches.
“Knowing what they’ve gone through the last eight months to try that to be in this position and have that opportunity. It was just a lot of joy and euphoria,” Rotondo said on the win.
“I guess, you know, stuff like that. It was just a lot of fun to watch to watch them celebrate.”
Rider will face UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament on April 14 at 10:30 p.m. UCLA finished its season 14-6 in the PAC-12. The Bruins are no. 17 ranked team in the country and do not have a first-round bye. They are also one of five Pac-12 teams in the postseason.