Six players wait on either side of a net just over seven feet tall, ready to dive to the ground and dig the ball before it touches the ground, poised to jump into the air to spike the ball into their opponent’s court. They play up to five sets, the first team to win three claiming victory. They wear elbow and knee pads, preparing for the effort they’ll have to put in to win the match. There’s no sand flying around, no sexist bikini uniforms, and very little television airtime during the Olympics. And yet, indoor volleyball still manages to be an extremely exciting sport. Players dive left and right in seemingly desperate attempts that in another context might be to save a falling glass vase and somehow set their teammates up for beautiful kills. Players serve ace after ace, daring the other team to try and return their hit. They set, bump, dig, and kill. And, lucky for us, a competitive team of 25 players calls Wesleyan home.
The Cardinals started off their 34th season with four wins in a row at the Johnson and Whales Invitational Tournament this past weekend. Wheaton College, Gordon College, Bridgewater State University, and Maine Maritime Academy were no match for Wesleyan, as the team swept each match three sets to none. Head coach Ben Somera, entering his third year at the helm of the program, was very proud of his team’s performance.
“We opened up the tournament with a team that hadn’t lost yet, and we actually were very efficient offensively,” Somera said. “It was really good to see that our style of play could match up with a more physical team and that we could still come out on top… I thought we could do it, and it was nice to see that happen for real.”
This was an ideal way to start the season, and it helped quell the fears of assistant coach Aly Torline, who worried that their late start to the regular season could lead to a slow one. However, after the success this past weekend, Torline was more than pleased.
“[The team was] all super together and looked super confident,” Torline said.
This confidence is in spite of the fact that the Dirty Birds’ starting lineup is primarily composed of freshmen and sophomores, which can only be a reflection of the team’s skilled coaching. Following a tough loss to Amherst in last year’s quarterfinals, the Cardinals are prepared to make a run further into the NESCAC tournament this fall. Somera has high hopes for this season.
“I think our goals can be to compete for our conference championship, I think our next immediate goal is to win the Little Three,” he said, referring to upcoming matches against Williams and Amherst. “We’d like to beat a nationally ranked team, [and] it’s been a while since this program has gone to the NCAA tournament. That would be a great thing to do in our third season together.”
Besides beating out NESCAC teams, Somera is also excited about the team’s growth.
“[I’m] mostly looking forward to having more depth and talent on our roster,” he said.
In addition to his coaching abilities, Somera’s recruiting prowess is nothing to laugh at either. Six talented freshmen, Harper Graves, Robi Frederick, Grace Rose, Phia Bellizzi, Clara Nachmanoff, and Shantel Sosa were added to the team this year. Somera hopes that this will increase the competitive atmosphere in practice, challenging his players to get better every day as they compete for playing time. As returning sophomores Nicole Hilton and Gabby Bennet build on standout rookie seasons, competition is inevitable. Hilton was named to the All-NESCAC team while Bennet was honored as a NESCAC player of the week last year. Senior captain Sarah Swenson will help to lead the team from the outside hitter position, providing wisdom and insight on the court.
Despite the tough competition, Somera was quick to reinforce the importance of being a team.
“Volleyball is the ultimate team sport, where your roles have to mesh and there has to be good team chemistry,” Somera said. “You can’t really be selfish.”
Consequently, the Dirty Birds are careful not to rely on one star player. Instead, they focus on contributions from their deep roster, where even bench warmers can make decisive plays in order to give the team the best shot at victory.
Up next, the team will travel to Westfield State University, Williams, and Hamilton as they begin conference play. But not to worry! You won’t have to travel too far to see your team in action. On Thursday, Sept. 21, the Cardinals play their home opener at 7 p.m. in Silloway Gymnasium against the Conn. College Camels. Of course, the Red Birds are hoping for a repeat of last year’s match, which they took three sets to one. Similarly, The Camels are gearing up for a run in this year’s NESCAC tournament, which would be their 13th in succession. They are not a team to be treated lightly, but Somera’s focus is on his own team.
“Early in the season we have to focus on tightening up our system,” he said. “We need to make adjustments in our own gym before we can worry too much about changing how we do things to match up with our opponents.”
So, mark your calendars for Sept. 21. I’ll be there, not just because it’s part of my job, but because it’s bound to be one of the most exciting regular season athletic events this fall.
Rose Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.