This past weekend, Division I club volleyball teams from across New England bused and vanned to the University of New Hampshire for the New England Club Volleyball League Championship tournament.
The two-day air affair consisted of a pool play round on Saturday in which every team played four of the other clubs in their respective divisions to determine the seeding for Sunday’s matchups. Standout teams on opening day included Northeastern University and Boston College, as both went 4-0 to clinch the top two seeds.
The University of Rhode Island, the top overall seed coming into the tournament, laid arguably the biggest egg of the weekend, finishing 2-2 on day one.
Senior captain setter and member of the all-tournament team, Jack Vaccaro, attributes a lot of Saturday’s unfulfilled hype to the injuries suffered to key players.
“We went in as the one seed and finishing the first day 2-2…Unfortunately, we lost some guys early in the matches, so we had a depleted lineup, but we played hard,” Vaccaro said.
The University of Connecticut (2-2), Bryant University (2-2), University of New Hampshire (1-3), Boston University (2-2), Tufts University (1-3), University of Massachusetts-Amherst (2-2) and Providence College (0-4) rounded out the records for division I during Saturday’s pool play round.
The Hamel Recreation Center at UNH was littered with volleyball parents on Saturday, and the atmosphere leaned family friendly according to Bryant’s senior middle Nick Colotta’s mother, Jean Bousquet.
“It’s awesome! I was here last year, so I’m seeing a lot of the same players, and it’s a lot of fun to watch them play…We traveled from Foxboro to come up, and I brought my daughter, who is a student at Simmons College, so she could see her brother play because it is [Nick’s] senior year,” Bousquet said.
Bousquet also grappled with the different aspects of the tournament, but eventually came to the conclusion that the positives outweighed the negatives.
“The games are fast pace, and they get over with. Also, the complex is easily accessible, and when nothing is going on, you can just walk around and partake in the facilities…We went to the tournament in Worchester, Massachusetts, and that one was just too big. We like this one better. The parking stinks, but that is out of my control,” Bosquet said.
Bousquet also loves watching her son because she knows when he started playing volleyball, it was love at first spike.
“Yeah, he loves this tournament. He just has always loved playing volleyball,” she said.
Sunday’s interdivisional rounds came fast for the competitors, as games resumed just 12 hours after they concluded the day before. Ryan Woodcock, the UConn head coach thought the short layover was apparent in his young team’s play early on, after a tough loss at the hands of Northeastern to start the day off.
“We have a hard time getting up in the morning sometimes on these long trips, especially after all the volleyball we played yesterday. But we were able to rebound…and they just kind of fed off of that,” Woodcock said.
Rebound is exactly what they did, as UConn proceeded to invigorate themselves and defeat a very prominent opponent, Boston College 25-17, 26-24, in straight sets to advance to the championship game via the loser’s bracket.
In the championship game, UConn met none other than Northeastern University after they squeaked out a victory against tough opponent UMass Amherst in three sets (18-25, 25-14, 17-15).
Northeastern’s performance severely overshadowed UConn’s throughout the two days, and even the referees couldn’t help but notice. When asked about which team had been most impressive, Fred Chase, a 42-year refereeing veteran couldn’t help but gush about the Huskies’ play.
“Probably Northeastern, they have played up to their potential, and they have definitely been impressive so far,” Chase said.
Going into the much-anticipated game, maybe Northeastern’s most invaluable player and member of the all-tournament squad, junior Eliot Smullen, thought that his team hadn’t played their best volleyball up to that point.
“We did well, we could probably do better, but overall, solid volleyball…we took the University of Massachusetts Amherst to three games and won in our last match, and that’s the closest it has been. We have to play better to win,” Smullen said
The gravity of the big game was evident by the locked eyes and silent, stationary mouths of the parents and onlookers, as the referee’s whistle sounded to kick off the first serve.
The first set went as many expected based on the weekend’s play: Northeastern cruising. Huskie standouts Alex Esso and Eliot Smullen were spiking all over Connecticut’s seemingly timid team demeanor.
However, after this first set, UConn’s players huddled and changed their mindset to a freer and determined state according to Coach Ryan Woodcock.
“They felt confident that if they could get out of their haze from the first set, that it could give us a chance for that one game to 15, and then anything can happen. They just owned it, and they have been talking about this all year, there was only one senior on the court, so they really have a mindset like, hey, let’s represent UConn and make this go as far as we can,” Woodcock said.
This huddle seemed to be their turning point, as UConn used emotion and grit to propel themselves to a 25-23 second set victory.
The 15-11 tie-breaker set was nothing short of drama-filled and nail-biting, but UConn used their built-up momentum, skinned knees and elbows, and perseverance to hoist the NECVL trophy.
Woodcock couldn’t have been prouder of his young squad after the match concluded.
“It proved that their words aren’t just words…today was the hard competition, and yesterday was murderers’ row in our pool, and we have some seniors that because of injuries, lost their spot because our young ones have stepped up. But our seniors still felt compelled to want to still show that they are still available and still good players. They were great players last year, they are still great players now…it’s huge that they could contribute, and I couldn’t have asked for more,” Woodcock said.
Despite not being victorious, Smullen and Vaccaro still believe this tournament was a positive experience for their respective teams.
“We wanted to win the tournament. We were the one seed and we didn’t want people thinking that we didn’t deserve it, so we came here to win…but, we still have nationals next week in Denver and I think having to go through some adversity will make us stronger and give us some more heart as a team,” Vaccaro said.
Smullen added, “Yeah, absolutely. The more touches…every team is good towards the end, so you just get touches against good teams, so it’s definitely beneficial.”
This tournament was not the last chance to perform at the highest level for the majority of these groups of college athletes. The National Collegiate Volleyball Federation is hosting the Collegiate Club Championships at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, Colorado from April 18-20, and all teams from the NECVL are participating.
Ryan Woodcock knows that his young UConn team can use this victory as a building block going into Denver next week.
“Yeah, it definitely is. The only thing better would be for us to leave for nationals this coming Wednesday instead of next Wednesday,” he said. “But this will give them time to get back, get their school work done and organized, and then we can really focus again.”
Recovery will be a point of emphasis for all of these squads, as they hope to have a strong showing in Denver. However, Eliot Smullen doesn’t think the process will be too difficult.
“Yeah, easily. It’s like two weeks before nationals. The most important thing is after every game, making sure that you take care of your body,” he said. “I have a banana after every game, but nationals is two weeks away so it’s not a huge issue. The day-to-day recovery stuff will need to be taken care of.”
Jack Vaccaro and URI have an extreme circumstance of unhealthiness, and he hopes that the time between now and the trip to Denver will be enough for his team to recover.
“It’s going to be dependent on these injuries that we have and whether they are lingering. We have about 10 days, so hopefully that’s enough time,” Vaccaro said.