After suffering a 3-0 sweep at the hands of UNH in the 2022 semifinals of the America East (AE) tournament just a year ago, the No. 3 seeded Binghamton volleyball team flipped the script this weekend at the AE tournament, defeating No. 2 UNH in a five-set reverse sweep. After dropping the first two sets by a slight margin, BU completed the reverse sweep by winning the next three sets to advance to the championship game. On Saturday night, in the title match, the Bearcats ultimately fell to No. 1 UMBC in a 3-0 sweep, finishing as the AE tournament runner-ups.
“[The match against UNH] was one of my favorite matches that I have ever coached in my entire coaching career,” head coach Allie Yaeger said. “The revenge that we were able to get on that team from last year at this time, just the whole focus and determination from this team was unreal … you could see it in every single point that they played.”
The Bearcats (15-13, 6-4 AE) grabbed an 11-5 lead over UNH (18-9, 7-3 AE) to open up the first set. However, the Wildcats kept the set close, managing to cut the BU lead to one at several points in the set. Things continued to go back and forth until Binghamton took a 23-21 lead, as UNH responded with four unanswered points to pull out a 25-23 victory in set one. The second set would yet again be tight all the way. Late in the frame, after a kill from senior outside hitter Tsvetelina Ilieva put BU up 22-21, the Wildcats went on a 4-0 run to win the set 25-22 to go up two sets to none.
“We were getting out dug, out served [and] out serve received in the first two sets,” Yaeger said. “We were losing, but we were still hitting like .300. So it wasn’t an offensive thing for us or a blocking thing.”
With their backs on the wall and their season on the line, Binghamton grabbed the momentum back in set three. Sophomore libero Madison Konopka propelled BU’s effort in the set with three consecutive aces to give BU a 12-8 lead. The Bearcats went on to close out the set with a 7-1 run, securing a 25-17 victory in set three to keep their season alive.
Similar to the first and second sets, the fourth set came down the wire. After going down early, Binghamton stayed within striking distance. With UNH leading 23-22, a kill from graduate student middle blocker Anna Sprys spearheaded a 3-0 run that won the set for BU. With the match tied at 2-2, both teams prepared for a fifth set with the winner advancing to the final.
“The players did such a good job taking control of those huddles after we were down two sets to none,” Yaeger said. “The emotional support from the bench and the kids who weren’t in the game did a really good job at motivating the players that were in the game.”
BU kept the momentum going into the final set. After some back-and-forth play to begin the set, a 4-0 run helped Binghamton to go up 9-4. It was all Bearcats from this point on as they completed the reverse sweep comeback with a 15-9 victory in set five to advance to the AE finals.
“It was fun,” Yaeger said. “It was an emotional roller coaster.”
In the championship game against UMBC (17-7, 8-2 AE), Binghamton got off to a slow start in set one with UMBC jumping out to a 7-2 lead. Despite a 6-0 from the Bearcats to cut the Retriever lead to two at 16-14, this was the closest BU would get, dropping the set 25-19.
BU came out with a 3-1 lead at the beginning of the second set. This was quickly met with a UMBC response, as the tournament hosts strung together a set of runs to go up 14-7 later in the frame. Although kills from Ilieva and Sprys got the Bearcats within three, they were unable to overtake the Retrievers, going on to lose the set 25-16.
“It was hard, and I knew it was going to be hard,” Yaeger said. “I was worried that we weren’t going to have enough gas in the tank, and it showed … we looked tired, we weren’t jumping as high, we weren’t hitting as hard.”
After the Bearcats won the first three points of the first set, the Retrievers came right back with four points of their own. Later in the frame, UMBC chained together a sequence of runs to take a 21-12 lead. UMBC held the lead the rest of the way to win the set 25-18 and the AE championship title.
“UMBC played amazing,” Yaeger said. “They played flawless. Their serve, their serve-receive game — they hit well. They did everything that they needed to do against us to take us in three.”
Binghamton’s season ends with an array of individual AE accolades. Ilieva was named the AE player of the year for the second consecutive year and was the only Bearcat to earn first-team all-conference honors. Freshman middle blocker Misa Dlouha won AE Rookie of the Year and collected a spot on the all-rookie team. Lastly, freshman outside hitter Ella Schabort and sophomore setter Lottie Scully took home second-team all-conference honors with Schabort also joining Dlouha on the all-rookie team.
“We had a lot of freshmen get awards this year,” Yaeger said. “I think the future is so bright, and their ceilings are so high.”
With the 2023 season now concluded, BU will look ahead to next year. Yaeger expressed that the team has a bright future and is continuing to progress toward the ultimate goal of making the NCAA tournament. With a relatively young team, the Bearcats will look to use this season’s experience to remain competitive in the AE conference next year.
“A championship experience,” Yaeger said. “There’s nothing like it. This was a step in the right direction for this program. Last year, we made the tournament [and] lost in the first round. This year, we made the tournament, [and] won in the first round. Next year, our ultimate goal is to make the tournament, win the first round and to bring home the championship.”