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Fall Sports Preview: Volleyball aims to repeat after Cinderella story season

Senior middle blocker McKyla Brooks attempts to hit the ball in a game against Binghamton in the Fall 2016 season. Brooks is an early front-runner for the America East Volleyball Player of the Year. ERIC SCHMID/STATESMAN FILE

The Stony Brook volleyball team capitalized on low expectations and sent shockwaves through the America East conference in 2017 with two straight postseason underdog victories en route to its first America East Championship. Now, after experiencing success through head coach Kristin Belzung’s mantra of “trusting the process,” the Seawolves will stick with the mindset that allowed them to win last season.

“Obviously we had a heck of an end of the year to be able to do what we did at the end of that weekend at the America East Championship and really see our team come together,” Belzung said following a team scrimmage. “We talked a lot about trusting the process last year and it really paid off in November for us. I think the good thing is for our team, we believe in working the process, we know that it is still a brand new team in August and we got to work the process to continue to build for what we want to be in November. It’s fun to hopefully start at a higher point and continue to build from there.”

Belzung noted the maturity of her returning players and their increasing involvement acting as coaches on and off the court.

“It has been a very different gym environment this year than it was last year just because we are a little further along,” Belzung said. “It is the second year of this coaching staff so 11 of the 16 players know our terminology and our system. So, we have been able to hit the ground running and utilize those 11 returners as coaches to help the freshmen along and be eyes on the court to tell people where to go.”

The returners will enter after battling adamantly throughout the 2017 season, narrowly edging out UMBC for the fourth and final postseason spot. The Seawolves capitalized on the opportunity and cruised to the championship. Stony Brook may have been touted as “underdogs” last year, but the team has taken on the role of champions in the gym this offseason.

While some teams would use the offseason as a time for sitting back, Stony Brook has utilized the desire to advance further in the NCAA tournament to continuously improve. The players showed no signs of slowing down on the court following their awe-inspiring postseason.

Among the returning athletes is an early front-runner for the America East Volleyball Player of the Year, senior middle blocker McKyla Brooks. Brooks led the conference last season in overall hitting percentage with .326 and earned America East All-Conference Team honors for the second consecutive season.

“I have just been working on my techniques with hitting, my blocking hands – basically everything,” Brooks said of her offseason training. “I made sure I listened to the coaches’ feedback and using that toward practice in order to go hard in practice.”

Brooks, along with senior setter Carla Souffront and graduate outside hitter Emily Costello, will play the roles of the Seawolves’ most veteran leaders. Belzung praised her longest-tenured players for stepping up in their unique roles.

“I am really excited about our senior class,” Belzung said. “You look at, obviously, McKyla as an All-Conference Player and Emily is kind of our glue kid. She does everything we need in terms of ball control and playing six rotations. Even Carla coming off the bench, being a server and fighting for a setting position, just adding the right energy [shows] we have the right senior leaders right now and it is a lot of fun.”

Nine of the Seawolves’ first 11 games this season are spread among three tournaments in Florida, Ohio and Washington. Stony Brook has already defeated more challenging teams than in prior years including Jacksonville, which finished with a 12-2 Atlantic Sun Conference record in 2017 and San Jose State, which finished 17-12 overall last season. The team’s biggest contest will likely be against Washington State, which advanced to the second round of the 2017 NCAA tournament.

“I’m pumped,” junior outside hitter Liz Pulver remarked about the competitive non-conference schedule. “Preseason tournaments are a grind with four weekends in a row of three-plus games and one more sprinkled in between. It is a lot but it is a lot of fun. It is great to get that competition outside of the normal conference and I think this year, having a harder schedule will help us more when we face off against conference. We are going to play some big teams, we are going to play in some neck-and-neck matches.”

The Seawolves were voted to finish third in the America East Women’s Volleyball Preseason Poll. Stony Brook earned two head coach votes, the most in program history, but trails UAlbany, which earned three votes. While the team may not be ranked in the top spot, the Seawolves are anticipating increased competition within the conference this season.

“I was pretty upset when I saw [the rankings],” Brooks said. “That being said, going up two spots is a pretty big deal. Now everybody knows who Stony Brook is and teams are going to be way harder this year and there is going to be a lot more competition.”

Players To Watch

Stony Brook Volleyball will be led on the court by graduate outside hitter Emily Costello and senior middle blocker McKyla Brooks. The pair dominated opposing defenses last year and finished the 2017 season in the top five in the America East for kills. Costello had the second-most service aces in the conference with 37, while Brooks led the America East in hitting percentage with .326. Brooks acknowledged that despite being a prominent player, a key to the team’s success comes from the players on the court and the bench taking on a leadership role.

“It is easy because our team does not have just one leader, we all lead in different ways,” Brooks said following a team scrimmage. “So it’s like, kind of easy to lead as a team because everyone is a leader on the team.”

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