By Kyle Koso
We’re often told to not dwell on the past, but a well-timed look in the rear-view mirror can be the best way to gauge just how far you’ve come.
The Boston College volleyball program has a generation-plus of baggage to navigate when it comes to wins and losses – since starting D-I play in 1990, they had exactly three above-.500 seasons (2001, 2003-04) before current coach Jason Kennedy arrived ahead of the 2018 slate. The Eagles got above water in 2019 and have repeated the feat in 2022 (21-13), earning a berth in the NIVC postseason event and ready to host a quarterfinal match, Wednesday against Xavier (21-11).
Life in the Big East and Atlantic Coast conferences over the years has been heavy sledding for BC, which is playing in the NIVC for the third time. Kennedy is already on the cusp of being the program’s all-time winning coach, and there’s certainly real desire coursing through the Eagles roster as they swept Buffalo and St. John’s in the first two rounds of the NIVC.
“The girls are motivated to do it. You get to this point of the season, you have to have a group that wants to play together and live to see another day,” said Kennedy, whose 79 wins is one off the BC program record. “I’ve never been around a group that likes each other and enjoys playing together as much as this one. They don’t want it to end, they’re working as hard in practice now as they did in August, and they want to see how many more steps they can take.”
Boston College’s win over St. John’s in Round 2 showed a certain mettle and determination, given how the Red Storm had beaten BC earlier in the season. The Eagles also won rematches this year against Virginia Tech and Syracuse – these moments of inspiration are pretty vital for a team in BC’s shoes, when dealing with ACC powerhouses like Georgia Tech, Pitt, Notre Dame, Miami and Florida State.
At one point this season, Boston College was 1-7 in league play, but the roster refused to surrender belief in its progress and process.
“You have to find a break, catch a break where you win a match where you’re the underdog and you’re able to win one,” Kennedy said. “At NC State (Oct. 16), after a long road trip, we found a way to win it in five, and that was huge for our team. We clinched that, came home and won a couple … beating Miami and Florida State was maybe the best weekend this program ever had in terms of the opponent RPI perspective. They were top 30 in the RPI, and that got us some confidence. You’re not thinking, ‘we’re 1-7’ – it’s more like, ‘we beat some teams, and who’s next?’ We played well, maybe were a little banged up, changed the lineup a bit, and that got us rolling toward being a lot better now than we were then.”
The Eagles’ offense is confidently steered in its 6-2 format by junior setters Grace Penn and Sophia Lambros, and the big shots come comfortably from senior Izzy Clavenna (281 kills), junior Katrina Jensen (255), sophomore Jenna Pollock (247) and grad transfer Kate Brennan (213), who played on the 2021 NIVC championship team from UNLV.
Kennedy says the lineup benefits from those multiple options, along with the singular skills of junior libero Anna Murphy.
“Anna Murphy, the steadiest pierce of them all, the core of our defense and serve-receive. Liberos don’t always get the credit they deserve for their job,” Kennedy said. “Our lineup, the beauty is we have four or five kids who can be the kill leader on a given night. The one staple that never seems to change is Anna back there. Having her as the core of the defense has been a positive, a peace of mind for the team.
“Jenna Pollock has stepped into a role that we never anticipated. We recruited her as a middle initially, we played her on the right a bit as a freshman, now she’s on the left side. She’s been the arm that we’ve needed to get here – you always want one kid you can toss the ball to at 23-all and have confidence she’ll be able to take a swing and won’t be afraid of that moment. Kate Brennan, she’s got the experience and been a great resource for the team to fall back on. She knows what this will take to win it all … it’s not an easy tournament. You’re not that familiar with the other teams, and there’s not a lot of time to prepare for it.”
Kennedy had never set foot in Boston before interviewing for the head coaching position at BC; all his history in out West as a native of Hawaii, a player at Santa Clara and coaching gigs at California high schools and then USC. His insight into those club worlds has helped bring a variety of players back East, creating unexpected and unprecedented momentum for the Eagles program.
“A lot of people initially, to be quite candid, told me this wasn’t the best career move. A cellar-dweller program in a conference that was OK at the time, but not great,” Kennedy added. “Our ability to make inroads has been monumental to what the future can be. We are in new territory, with a single-season win record of 21 wins, and it’s fun to build something where nobody thought it could happen. The staff has been intact since January 2018. We’re not playing the transfer card a whole lot, and it’s special to find that group that buys into you as coaches and the culture and have them stay. When you get there, you get that 21st win, it’s a pretty good feeling.”
LAST WORD – Kennedy on the value of the NIVC: “The team that wins it (lately) seems to make the NCAA tournament the next year. Georgia Tech wins it, hasn’t missed the tournament, UNLV wins, is in the tournament. It carries a lot of weight and can prepare you for the next year. You have to have kids coming back, and fortunately we do. A lot of bigger conferences don’t have tournaments, and you have to feel that pressure where the season is on the line. We don’t get that in a conference tournament. If you have the buy-in from the staff and admin and players, especially, I don’t know that you can be in Division I athletics and not want to compete for a national tournament. If we get selected … as a competitor I want to play in it, and then I want to win it. I don’t get the mindset of ‘we’re too good for this, we’ll try again next year’ – give me a chance to win something at the end.”