Volleyball wins semifinal, will play for NE-10 title


Photo courtesy of Tyler Wells

The New Haven volleyball team huddles during their quarterfinal match against Southern New Hampshire University, Nov. 16, West Haven.

The New Haven women’s volleyball team staved off a semifinal elimination with a 3-1 win on Friday night against third-seeded Stonehill College. Senior right side Jessica Akiona had a standout performance for New Haven, putting together one of the most dominant nights from any Charger all season.

The first set started off with the two sides trading points and Stonehill taking a slim 17-13 advantage. The Skyhawks turned up the pressure, overpowering the New Haven front with a series of spikes. It was a disappointing and slow start for the Chargers as they dropped the first set 25-16.

It only seemed to get worse in the second set, when New Haven fell behind 12-7. A Stonehill serve sailed wide and was followed by a pair of errant hits that put the Chargers back into the match. A resounding spike from Akiona trimmed the lead to 14-12, but it still didn’t seem to be enough.Stonehill was determined to stave off any comeback, keeping a seven-point advantage late in the set.

With their back against the wall and a potential 2-0 deficit looming, the Chargers went to work. Kills from sophomore middle blocker Emily Smith and Akiona turned the tide in New Haven’s favor, leaving Stonehill with a slim 24-22 lead. Facing the match point, Akiona once again had another kill to cut the lead. A Stonehill error and a New Haven block gave the Chargers a 25-24 lead, their first of the match.

Stonehill tied the set at 25 before Akiona, out-of-position in the middle of the court, fired a spike off the Stonehill defender; New Haven was threatening with match point again. The ensuing rally teased New Haven, as a series of miraculous Stonehill saves led to a point to tie the set. At 26-26, nothing was coming easy to New Haven.

Freshman outside hitter Macy Brown added a kill to give New Haven another match point opportunity, as a Stonehill attack error ended the marathon second set. After a tense 31 minutes, New Haven evened the match at one with a 28-26 victory.

“In the first set, we had a hard time winning the rallies,” Akiona said after the game. “When the ball was coming back over, we were still moving, or we weren’t back to where we want to be. When we came into the second set, we were a lot more fluid, more dialed into our assignments.”

With momentum on their side, New Haven turned the pressure onto the Skyhawks.

The Chargers looked like a new team in the third set; they opened an early 10-6 lead and forced Stonehill to take a timeout. The defense changed their strategy: taking away the middle of the court and forcing the Skyhawks to connect on the corners This strategy worked and Stonehill made errors that helped New Haven put points on the board.

“We said, ‘this is where we are,’ so now what? We’ve just got to find a way to win,” New Haven head coach Christa Cooper said postgame in response to the team’s zero hitting percentage in the third set. “Whether the passing isn’t working, the attacking isn’t working, the defense isn’t working, whatever it is… we just have to do what it takes.”

An error and double touch set New Haven up with a match point, as a block by Akiona iced the third set. Now with a 2-1 lead, New Haven entered the fourth set looking to clinch their bid into the Northeast-10 (NE-10) Championship.

During the fourth set with the teams tied 2-2, Akiona made the play of the year for New Haven. A deflection off junior outside hitter Emily Barry sent the ball flying towards the Chargers’ bench. Akiona, covering ground from just outside the net, bumped the ball back into play while dodging her scattering teammates. She took a face-first fall into an NE-10 sign next to the court and recovered as the rally continued.

New Haven’s Jessica Akiona blocks a ball against Southern New Hampshire University, Nov. 16, West Haven. (Photo courtesy of Tyler Wells)

The Stonehill offense rushed to take advantage of the defensive rotation. Just as the ball was set for a spike, Akiona seemed to appear out of nowhere to block the attempt and give New Haven the point. At that moment, it felt as if something special was happening in Butova Gymnasium.

Akiona, after falling onto the floor in a mix of exhaustion and excitement, was engulfed by her teammates that saw their leader pour everything into a single point early in the fourth set.

“What helps Jessica do what she can do is the effort that she puts in at practice,” Cooper said. “She definitely works hard enough to be able to step up in those tough moments.”

Akiona didn’t stop there, following it up with another kill to seal the momentum. Freshman defensive specialist Carleigh Vedder subbed in to serve for Akiona, with the Chargers not missing a beat without their star. Vedder’s first serve led to a Stonehill error, senior middle hitter Asiya Way blocked a shot and Brown added a kill to open a 9-3 lead.

This gave New Haven enough of a cushion throughout the set. Akiona and Barry helped push the lead to 18-10 with a series of kills. Facing elimination, Stonehill put together a comeback late in the set, trimming the Chargers’ lead to just three.

With a 24-21 match point, a set from freshman Sophia Leon-Tabor gave Barry the chance to bury Stonehill; she didn’t miss. Her strike found the court and gave New Haven the win, leading to a mob of players at center court.

Akiona finished with 21 kills on an astonishing .514 hitting percentage. Barry also ended in double digits for kills, adding 10 of her own alongside 18 digs. Brown, Smith and Way led the Chargers defensively, providing five, five and four blocks respectively. Leon-Tabor also dished out 43 assists.

With the win, New Haven improves to 22-8 (10-3 NE-10) and earns a trip to the conference championship. Stonehill falls to 21-9 (10-3 NE-10) and sees their tournament run end.

New Haven plays the first-seeded American International College with the NE-10 title on the line tomorrow. The match is at Butova Gymnasium in Springfield, Mass., with starting time slated for 5 p.m. More information can be found at NewHavenChargers.com.

“I think that staying disciplined and making sure that we know that we have our assignments… and staying unified,” Akiona said. “Then I think we’ll have success.”