As the Iona volleyball program continues its climb from a cluster of sub-.500 records, there’s logic in leaning on a player who is comfortable with long journeys.
The Gaels’ roster in 2018 is a reliable blend of experienced players and promising newcomers, but everyone is aware that senior Claire Archibald will likely be the leading light, having been named the preseason co-player of the year in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. She was a first-team all-MAAC selection as a junior, leading the team in kills and digs, while also authoring an imposing total of 61 aces, one of the best in the nation.
This year, Iona (located in the New York City suburb of New Rochelle, N.Y.) is hoping for that next bounce forward after a 16-18 finish and an appearance in the MAAC tournament title match. Archibald, a product of Coto de Caza, Calif., who cut her teeth under the tutelage of Troy Tanner at Tstreet, is flexing her muscles early.
She had 22 kills and 22 digs in a five-set win September 1 over New Hampshire. The Gaels (2-3) have had a nice stretch off and play host to Central Connecticut on Wednesday.
Mastering many skills is a product of learning how to do one thing, she believes.
“I was lucky enough to find Tstreet before it became a club. My mom decided to take a risk and put me in volleyball; I was playing soccer at the time,” Archibald said. “Having Troy Tanner as a mentor and practicing his methods … the first thing I remember Troy saying in developing me as a player had to do with my passing and my platform. He said if you can’t pass, you can’t play.
“The other things fell into place later on, but having the basics of how you step when you approach … not even about hitting the ball or where, just the fundamentals of your platform, where your feet are placed, your hands when you set the ball. Over time, it becomes second nature, and when I mess up I know exactly what I did wrong.”
While Archibald is the epitome of stability, her run at Iona has certainly featured some turbulence. The program turned to a new coach in 2016, with Patric Santiago moving in from a successful stint at SUNY Farmingdale, and while the fresh air of his perspective helped matters, the team stumbled to a 7-24 record that season.
For some, the challenge of being so far from home during such disruption would have been too much to tolerate. But Archibald, who leads the Gaels at 3.79 kills per set through the first matches, is not the type to panic.
“I was pretty excited; I know the early results weren’t in our favor, but the process behind the scenes was (positive),” she said. “We had a really big culture shift; the dynamic of the team shifted, how we carried ourselves around campus, and what we expected out of our practices and weightlifting session and how hard we trained, the academics … it all shifted.
“I’ll be honest, in other circumstances it was possible Iona wouldn’t have been the right fit for me, but I had a lot of faith in coach Pat, and he did a great job in turning our program into what it is now. I’ve always been a very committed person, someone who can stick through those low lulls.”
Santiago has emphasized big-picture topics at Iona, with last year’s turnaround campaign giving everyone reason to believe. The last winning records for the Gaels came in 2013 (16-14) and 2010 (20-11), and this season has all the makings of breaking the trend.
“There were a lot of great people already in place, and the kids seemed eager to learn a new culture and be held accountable. They took to it; it didn’t show dividends right away, but in terms of attitude and behavior, they embraced it,” Santiago said. “And when they really embraced it in the second year, they got more to take away from it. We talked about wins and losses as little as possible. We talk about our behaviors and the work, and how that impacted the program. Reflect our individual values, embrace that and try to get better every day.”
Look for sophomore Jamie Smith to add serious bounce to the program; she was the MAAC rookie of the year in 2017 as the team’s primary setter while also finishing second in kills. Iona’s next two top performers in kills last year, Tess Connolly and Mia Bonsignore, are also back. And of course, Archibald is there to provide her varied assortment of skills.
“She came from a great program; it’s nice to see someone with that talent to grow, because when she came in she definitely had some emotional growth that needed to happen, as we all do,” Santiago said of Archibald, who also averages 3.53 digs per set, second on the team. “She’s really done a nice job growing her game; she didn’t let the fact she had a lot of skills coming in stop her from developing and becoming more complete. Her leadership has been phenomenal.”
The bittersweet aspects of “senior year” aren’t really a concern now for Archibald, but that doesn’t mean she’s missing the point of her career drawing to a close.
“There is some pressure with it being my last year, but this is a great opportunity to come out and have a great season again,” she said. “One thing I wanted to keep in mind … I very much want to play for the little 9-year-old who chose to play volleyball, and the 14-year-old who had to make the decision to play volleyball over soccer, and the girl who decided to move all the way across the country to play a sport she loves, at a Division I program where she didn’t know anybody or anything, and who took a leap of faith.
“Having faith and confidence in the abilities I’ve been able to grow is very important, and so is being grounded and humble. There are so many little girls who would die for the opportunity to have what I have, and every single day, no matter how hard it is to get up at 5:30, or do the weightlifting … it’s so worth it. At the end of the day, I’m going to look back on all four years and be very happy."