For the first time in program history, the Binghamton volleyball team hosted the America East (AE) tournament over the weekend. While the Bearcats were the No. 1 seed entering the tournament, they had several players unable to play, including all-conference freshman setter Lottie Scully. After beating UNH twice during the regular season, BU was unable to replicate its success, dropping the semifinal match in three sets.
“It’s disappointing for us, but it just wasn’t our day,” said Binghamton head coach Allie Yaeger. “We didn’t execute today. We talked all week about the serve and serve-receive game, and it just wasn’t there for us today. We were out of system so much in the first and second set … [UNH] did an outstanding job with their serve and pass game, so I feel like that’s where they beat us.”
Binghamton (17-8, 8-2 AE) came out of the gates slow, as the Wildcats (20-8, 6-4 AE) opened the game with a 4-0 run. The hosts countered immediately with three straight points of their own, courtesy of two kills by first-team all-conference junior outside hitter Stefana Stan. Stan tallied six kills in the first set alone and finished the match tied for a team-best 11 kills.
“We can always rely on [Stan],” Yaeger said. “The things that she does when you only come in and play three rotations — she does exactly what we need her to do. She passes well, she hits well [and] she blocks well.”
The back-and-forth effort continued for the remainder of the first set, with both teams going on mini-scoring runs. Eventually, the Bearcats found themselves up 23-21, approaching a set one victory, but UNH staged a late-game 3-0 run to take a 24-23 advantage. Both sides traded points before the Wildcats, who found themselves down 28-27, tallied three straight kills to take the first set 30-28.
In set two, BU got out to another slow start, falling behind 6-1. However, the Bearcats did not give up as they strung together two separate 4-0 runs to tie the game up at 10-10. This was yet another back-and-forth set, as both teams went toe-to-toe with each other. The score ended up being tied at 20, but Binghamton was unable to neutralize the UNH offense as it lost 25-23 in the frame.
“It’s tough going into a match where we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare with that lineup,” Yaeger said. “I thought [junior setter Jessie Bilello] did an outstanding job coming in … But that New Hampshire team, they wanted it, and it’s hard to beat a team three times in a season.”
In hopes of a comeback, Binghamton began the third set with a 5-3 lead. However, that was the last lead BU held for the remainder of the set as the Wildcats capitalized on nine Bearcat errors in the set. Offensively, most of the contributions came from Stan and AE Player of the Year junior outside hitter Tsvetelina Ilieva. The pair each had 11 kills on the day to lead BU.
Additionally, Binghamton’s defense played a major role in the match as the team totaled nine blocks on the day, with five coming from senior middle hitter Anna Sprys. It was not enough, however, as the Bearcats lost the third set 25-16, ending their AE title hopes.
“We were still able to put the ball away,” Yaeger said. “That’s something that we never stopped doing the whole match … We can’t forget the good stuff that we did, and we took some big swings at big times. It got to the point where we had to have a sense of urgency, especially when we’re down 2-0 … But we were able to put the ball away, we did that well, and blocking has always worked for us, so that was good too.”
As a team, BU earned an array of AE season awards. Led by Yaeger, Binghamton’s coaching staff earned Coaching Staff of the Year honors for their first-place finish in the conference this year. Furthermore, the Bearcats earned a league-high five all-conference awards, including Ilieva who was the unanimous choice for AE Player of the Year. Stan joined Ilieva on the first team while Sprys, Scully and freshman outside hitter Giulia Bonifacio took second-team all-conference selections.
“It’s a team effort,” Yaeger said. “All of them coming together and learning how to play as a team and building a new culture … So many new faces, new coaching staff and to be able to put out on the floor what we have all season long, I’m so proud of every single one of them. There’s a lot of individual awards that they got, [but] they couldn’t have done that without the rest of the team.”
Despite the conference season now coming to a close, BU’s season will continue. After capturing the AE regular season title, the Bearcats earned themselves a spot at the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NVIC). The NVIC is a 32-team tournament whose bracket will be unveiled on Nov. 27.
“Season’s not over,” Yaeger said. “I think [the NVIC] is a great opportunity too for these kids to see what postseason is like, keep them competing into December and help us for the future.”