For the Manhattan College volleyball team, the 2013 and 2014 seasons have resulted in consecutive disappointing eliminations in the semifinals of the MAAC tournament.
Heading into the 2015 season, Manhattan loses three seniors, including Malia McGuinness—last year’s MAAC Player of the Year—and two key members of the team in Anna Kitlar and Sarah Haselhorst,
To some, that would be reason enough to temper expectations for this season. But with a squad that features nine returning players and seven newcomers, Manhattan continues to be a team right in the middle of things.
For Jade Gray, a captain on the team, Manhattan has its sights set on being much more than a team that’s just in the middle of things.
“Last year, we just kind of fell short and it was very frustrating,” Gray said, “because I felt like we had the talent but I think this year we have even more. I have this feeling that this is the year, so I’m excited.”
The head coaches in the MAAC seem to believe in Gray’s championship aspirations, as the team finished tied for second in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Among the coaches to vote in the poll was Manhattan’s Mark Jones, who sees 2015 as the breakthrough year for the Jaspers.
“I think the leadership is right where we need it to be,” Jones said about his squad. “I’m very happy with the progress, especially of the new players who’ve come in. I think being such a mature team, in the sense of a lot of seniors, I think this is definitely our year. We have a lot more talent coming in to help us, a lot more depth, so I really think this is our year.”
It will be hard for Manhattan to crown itself a champion, however. The team will be without McGuinness, who aside from being the number one option on offense last season, was a top defender and leader on the team.
But Jones realizes that his squad has a different makeup this season. He has added more height to strengthen the middle blocker position and by adding seven players to the team has increased the depth in the roster.
“I don’t know if you’re going to replace a player of the year really,” Jones said about replacing McGuinness, “but I think we have a lot of players that are a year wiser. But we have to get better on the outside, be a little more consistent if we want to replace somebody like the player of the year.”
At McGuiness’ position of outside hitter, Manhattan will have several options. Back on the team this season are Claire Van Dyk and Sydney Volovski, who placed second and third on the team in kills last season with 2.85 and 2.84 respectively.
Van Dyk’s and Volovski’s spots in the lineup are assured, but Jones said he will be looking for a third option to be a consistent scoring a threat. Mary Donnelly and Clare Bozzo return, and are candidates for the position. Along with Milena Janjusevic, who transferred from Odessa College, where she led her team with 2.29 kills per set last season.
In the middle, either Marissa Behrens or Ivana Kostic—a transfer from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County—will start, but both will contribute.
The libero position remains rock solid for Manhattan with Allie Yamashiro set to lead the way. Last season, Yamashiro led the MAAC in digs with 656, a mark that set a school record. Expectations remain high for her this season, as she was voted onto the preseason all-MAAC team.
Yamashiro will get some help on defense from defensive specialist Alyssa Rehrer, who Jones believes might be the most ready to contribute out of the five freshmen on the team.
Rehrer can also play at setter, but that is a position that is locked up by Gray.
It wasn’t like that this time last year. Gray entered last season as the backup to Teodora Peric, but an injury to Peric halfway in the season forced Gray into action. Peric healed from her injury a few games later but never got her job back, as Gray made the most of her opportunity and kept the job for good.
“I just knew I really wanted it, and had worked really hard for it, so I had to keep that mentality,” Gray said about how she was able to hold on to the starting setter spot. “I had to keep working hard because that’s what got me there.”
Gray had McGuinnes to set up on last year’s team, but this season will have more options at her disposal. She believes the new additions will make the team more well-rounded and can get Manhattan over the hump.
For Jones, Manhattan goes into the season with a clear goal.
“Our goal is always to win the conference, go to the tournament, and go to the NCAA Tournament, so I don’t think those have changed,” Jones said on his expectations for the season. “I think if you want to get there, you need senior leadership and that’s a huge key for us with five seniors. I think we’re definitely going to be able to accomplish that.”
Editor’s Note: Interviews were conducted on Aug. 26, before the start of the season on Aug. 28. The Jaspers opened their season going 3-1 at the Towson Invitational. Van Dyk and Janjusevic led the way in kills for the team averaging 2.93 and 2.87 kills per set respectively.