The NCAA has passed legislation adding the National Invitational Volleyball Championship as a permanent season-ending event for volleyball – Triple Crown Sports brought the event back to life in 2017 and has seen the programs from Ole Miss, Iowa State, Georgia Tech and UNLV claim an NIVC title. The 2022 event will launch with selection night on Nov. 27, with the championship match slated for Dec. 12 or 13.
By Kyle Koso
When you play an ocean of volleyball, there’s a sea of possibilities that open up as a result.
The 2022 season for Marist College has shown the Red Foxes are not flinching from the demands of hard work, whether that’s gutting out a cluster of five-set matches or pounding away in practice as head coach Sean Byron keeps the tempo rocking like the busiest heavy-metal bass drum. Marist currently sits tied for second at 11-4 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (15-10 overall) and is set to end the regular season with three road matches and a route that can end with the program’s first 20-win season since 2015.
No one is likely to catch MAAC preseason No. 1 Fairfield (13-1, 19-6) before the league tournament, but Marist did win at Fairfield in five sets on Oct. 12, part of a 10-day window where the squad won three five-setters on the road. There’s a confidence that comes when every player knows they suit up prepared for whatever might happen.
“It helps then, justifying all that training. We talk about it a lot; recruits come in and ask what’s different, we say we play a lot, parents say no kidding, I would hope so and you’re not just out in the quad taking pictures,” said Byron, who took the reins at Marist in 2019 after working on Power 5 staffs (Ohio State, Michigan, West Virginia) for 12 years. “Traditional men’s training is 6-on-6, thinking that the team will make the individual better. Traditionally, old-school for women, we say we’ll work on digging from the left back, you put them in a line, they get a ball and go back to the end of the line. That’s training the individual to make the team better.
“We look to combine both – I’ll hit one to the girl at left back, and then we’ll go 6-on-6. It then goes back to the random sport (aspect) like soccer or lacrosse, the free-flowing where you have to make decisions. We had a 200-point practice (recently), and in a five-set match, you’re at 160, 170 points … with the volume, you get into game five, we’re feeling good.”
Offensively, the Red Foxes are getting great production from juniors Sasha van der Merwe (354 kills) and Jordan Newblett (251), but it can be argued that the special sauce for the group is cooked up from three grad students who fortify three essential positions on the floor. Running the show is setter McKinley Fox (9.55 assists per set); the back row features the steady hands of Morgan Owens at DS (who leads the team in digs), and the outside also can come hard with the swings of Gabrielle Heller (306 kills), who played at Washington State and Loyola Marymount before crossing the country and jumping in with Marist.
“We have grad students in three integral spots. They’ve been in college, going through the year-round training, dealing with classwork, living away from home, playing and training, watching their nutrition – all the stuff in a college season, when our current freshmen were in eighth grade,” Byron said. “You respect the fact this is their fifth year, and they’ve been doing it at this speed and physicality for so long. The maturity and confidence level really shows, and younger players will emulate that.
“You might hit a ball out of bounds; one attack error isn’t a lot. You can see as freshman, they hit one out and mentally spin, but hey, the next one isn’t worth two points. You play each point as it comes along, and that’s what is big for the grad students, the maturity and functioning under duress.”
After the dozen years of coaching for large-scale programs, Byron has embraced the little things that have led the Red Foxes to believe big things are possible from their intimate setting in Poughkeepsie, NY, just two hours from the heart of The Big Apple.
“It’s nice to be able to have control and run it how you want to,” he said. “It’s a lot different in terms of resources; the head coach is washing uniforms on Saturday so we have them for Sunday, we set up the nets and tape the floor. We’re the academic advisor, we talk about how to interview for jobs in the spring – it’s a one-stop shop for me and my staff. It’s also rewarding, you have ownership over every aspect. In terms of play, these kids want to win. They bought in to how we changed things and how we train, the volume we are training at, which is very high.”
The volleyball will continue to come fast and furious for Marist, with road contests at Siena (10-5), Niagara (5-9) and Canisius (8-6) looming ahead of the MAAC tourney, which hits before Thanksgiving weekend.
“I feel like even the matches we lost, it was really about things that were in our control, things we didn’t handle very well,” Byron added. “It wasn’t like having breakdowns in the same spot, and we felt good about our ability to correct all that. The kids feel pretty good where we are at.
“In the middle of season, we felt by end of year we wanted certain things in our toolbox, and we forced a few things into the system. We weren’t great at it, but eventually it started to feel better … the matches we’ve been good, we’ve been diversified. Middles, right side, outside, then offensively we can be a lot to handle. The matches where we played one-dimensional, that’s where we struggled. The more we can spread things out, the better we’ll be.”