Women’s volleyball heads into their regular CAA season

The+women%27s+volleyball+team+will+head+into+their+regular+season%2C+playing+first+against+rival+Hofstra.+

Mihiro Shimano

The women’s volleyball team will head into their regular season, playing first against rival Hofstra.

Mihiro Shimano, sports editor

The Northeastern women’s volleyball team (3-1) will face their first conference opponent, Hofstra University (3-0), March 5, officially kicking off their run to the CAA championships scheduled to take place in Towson, MD April 1 and 3. 

Due to COVID-19 protocols, this season the CAA has split the conference into two divisions, North and South. NU will compete in the North division alongside Delaware and Hofstra, as well as Towson University, who were the winners of the 2019 CAA championships. This leaves the Huskies to play eight regular season games, with the opportunity to go up against Hofstra twice. 

Riddled with cancellations and postponements, the Huskies started off their season on an off-footing against non-conference opponent Boston College, losing 1-3. But the loss was anticipated as they had not played a game in 15 months. The team also debuted their three freshmen, defensive specialist Maddie Donaphon, outside hitter Defne Arliel and middle blocker Marika Virthe. 

“[The game] went well,” said sophomore outside hitter Nailah Jenkins. “We have a lot of time and room to improve, we have a lot of potential, especially with the incoming freshman class.” 

Since then, the Huskies have won all of their games, two in a series against Rhode Island and another against Merrimack College just last weekend. 

One of the leaders of these games was sophomore opposite outside hitter Erica Staunton, who was named CAA offensive player of the week after the two URI games. In the 2019 season, Staunton was part of the CAA All-Rookie team and amassed a total of 241 kills. The game against Merrimack proved a high point for the outside-hitting Staunton-Jenkins duo as Staunton had a career-high-tying 20 kills while Jenkins racked up five kills on six attacks (.833). 

Sophomore defensive specialist Kayla Martin also received mention as CAA defensive player of the week after the URI series, totalling a career-high 25 digs in one game. Last season, the then-rookie came out with 216 digs overall. 

This year, the team is relatively young, with nine of the 14 players being freshmen or sophomores. However, they are not without strong leadership from the veterans of the team. 

“In the leadership area, [Samantha Shupe] as a senior captain is definitely going to play a key role in the chemistry, on and off the court,” said head coach Lenika Vazquez. 

Senior setter Shupe has been a key assist for the hitters, placing in all four of the games’ assist leaders boards. She will also be aiming to become the fourth member of the NU 3000-assist club, currently sitting at 2646 assists. Senior outside hitter Katie Rolfe also made a comeback this season during the game against Merrimack, getting back on the court for the first time in almost three years after being out for several injuries and surgeries. 

Having not had their usual fall season was a setback for the team, considering the uncertainties that surrounded the return of college athletics teams and playing against one another. Even with the return of their season, the Huskies had to face the cancellation of their first two games in which they were set to play against Connecticut. 

“It was definitely a setback when we first heard games getting cancelled because of COVID,” Martin said. “It was a reality check.” 

On top of all this, the Huskies have also undergone a leadership change in the past two years. After former head coach of 18 years Ken Nichols stepped down, the team was under the leadership of Caitlin Schweihofer for the 2019 season. However, in February 2020, Vazquez stepped into the position of head coach, giving them a new coach once more. 

“It was difficult initially having to transition to a new program — not having a lot of time to connect with them and trying to use that virtual space was very different,” Vazquez said. 

Before she could get to know all of her players, the COVID-19 outbreak forced everyone to leave campus, leaving Vazquez no option other than to talk volleyball over Zoom and bond in that way. 

“I can’t say it’s been easy but I can say the team has done a great job of being flexible and fluid,” she said. 

Despite the initial hardships, Martin said the time spent meeting online with coach Vazquez and her teammates helped her to make stronger connections and a smoother transition to this season. Now, the team looks forward to being able to travel together and play competitively against other schools, which had been lacking until this season began. 

In their first home-and-home series of the regular season, they will face long-term rival Hofstra.

“Every year, our goal is to win CAA’s, but I think our goal this year is to have fun and play, just embrace the fact that we’re playing,” Jenkins said. “We want to win, of course, but at the end of the day, we love playing volleyball regardless and I want to put the best foot forward.”