A final ball whistled past diving Emerson defenders, silencing a roaring crowd at the Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym on Tuesday night, ending a tight 3-2 match against Smith College in the NEWMAC quarterfinals.
After a successful 18-4 regular season, the Lions were surprised to fall in the first round of the conference playoffs to the Smith College Pioneers, who they beat 3-0 less than a month ago. Senior middle blocker Jillian Kay said the team believed in themselves from start to finish.
“We never expected that,” Kay said. “Not once did we expect that outcome. The whole game, it felt like we were up.”
Head Coach Ben Read explained the Pioneers adjusted their strategy to expose some of the Lions’ weaknesses.
“Smith changed their block,” he said. “They did a good job of blocking the line, and we just couldn’t get hit around [it].”
Kay added that the presence of Smith’s 6-foot-5 middle blocker Miranda Oakes—who tallied five blocks—totally changed the game for Emerson.
“I remember last time we played them… they didn’t use her in the middle,” Kay said. “She was able to get up right above the net and have a big block.”
Emerson started the game strong, cleanly winning the first set 25-15—capitalizing on Smith’s nine errors. It wouldn’t last long though, as the Lions made nine errors of their own in the second, dropping the set 25-20.
The Lions returned to the court for the third set with passion, playing scrappy volleyball en route to a decisive 25-15 victory which saw players diving across the court to deny the opposition from scoring. Read said although the final result didn’t go the Lions’ way, no one could criticize the team’s effort.
“[It was] through the roof,” he said. “There was no lack of effort from anyone. It comes down to lack of execution sometimes, but we gave it our all tonight. Couldn’t be prouder.”
Despite leading the game after three frames, the Lions collapsed in the final two. Dropping the last two sets 25-18 and 15-9, the Lions couldn’t generate any consistent rhythm. Senior middle hitter Logan Steenbergen said it felt like the Pioneers threw the brakes on their attack flow.
“[They were] shutting down our momentum,” they said. “I don’t think we played poorly. I think they just stole the momentum out from underneath us.”
Their imposing presence at the front of the net proved key to the Pioneers’ defense—in the final two sets Smith logged 15 of its 23 blocks. Emerson tallied just 14 all night long.
Steenbergen said the Pioneers’ block was half the problem—the other half was the Lions’ stubborn resistance to shifting their strategy.
“We shifted to tipping over and around the block a little bit too late,” Steenbergen said. “We kept trying to pound through and that wasn’t working.”
Despite the Lions’ lack of success in the last two sets, they wouldn’t go down without a fight. After allowing Smith to go on a 6-1 run to start the final set, the Lions clawed their way back, drawing the set as close as 6-4 before the Pioneers stampeded back in, scoring seven consecutive tallies to make it 13-4.
Even then, the Lions made it difficult, adding five more points before the game officially ended.
The finish devastated the team, particularly the eight seniors—the remaining players from the 2019-20 team that made a run to the NEWMAC Championship before losing to Babson. Senior defensive specialist Anna Phillips said she will remember those players and this team fondly.
“Being able to [play] with this incredible group of girls who put their best work in every single day has easily been one of my best memories,” she said. “We always do karaoke night [for] bonding. [I’ll remember] just playing the sport that we all love.”
Kay said the team’s stiff resistance all the way to the finish made the confirmation of defeat that much more painful.
“[It] was a surreal moment,” she said. “You could hear everyone in the crowd cheering and saying ‘Let’s go Lions,’ and then that ball hit the floor. And it was just like, wow, now my volleyball career is over.”
Steenbergen said they too didn’t come to grips with the end of their career until that final moment.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘I’m gonna have to find something else to do,’” they said. “I’ve been playing volleyball since I was nine years old. It’s all I’ve ever done. My impending identity crisis just became very real in that moment.”
For Kay, the bonds she formed with her teammates will last long beyond her time at Emerson.
“They’re with me till the end,” she said. “I know I can count on them. I can call them anytime, even if it’s not volleyball related. Every memory I have with them is precious, and I’m so thankful for my time with Emerson volleyball.”
Even amidst a moment of grief, there was optimism. Read noted there is always next year, and with a young crop of talent developing this year, next year will yield a strong team.
“We’ll graduate some very impressive seniors, but we also have some very impressive underclassmen,” he said. “We can keep learning from these experiences, and that’s gonna make us better next year.”
On Tuesday, however, no one was looking forward to next year. For the Lions, it was all about the end of an era—the end for the seniors.