BOSTON, Mass. - The Simmons College women's volleyball team will take on number 10 nationally-ranked Johnson & Wales University in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference Championship on Saturday, November 4 at 1:00 p.m. at the Wildcat Center in Providence, R.I.
The Sharks are the tournament's number two seed after finishing with an 11-1 conference mark as part of an overall record of 21-9, which establishes a school record for victories. The Wildcats have not lost a regular season match in two seasons and are a perfect 31-0 this year, including 12-0 in GNAC play. Johnson & Wales is ranked first in the New England Region and received a national-ranking for the first time in school history this year after going 33-1 a year ago, with its only loss coming in NCAA Tournament play.
While the Wildcats season-long win streak is obviously impressive, Simmons did not lose a match in October and is currently enjoying a school-record 12-match win streak. The Sharks have lost just two sets, while winning 36 during the stretch since September 30.
Simmons defeated seventh-seeded Suffolk University, 25-15, 25-17, 27-25 in the GNAC Quarterfinals and followed that with a 25-20, 25-21, 25-20 victory over number three seed Rivier University in the Semifinals. Johnson & Wales posted a 25-11, 25-17, 25-9 triumph over eighth-seeded Mount Ida College in the quarters and dispatched of fourth-seed Lasell College, 25-11, 25-13, 25-10, in the semifinals. The Wildcats scored a three-set victory over the Sharks in Boston on 25-12, 25-8, 25-15, in the third conference match of the season for Simmons on September 26. The Sharks have put together a 13-2 mark since that loss. Gabbie Scudder and Hannah Dolan each put down seven kills to lead a Johnson & Wales team that hit .444 for the match. Brylee Frank set for 23 assists and Maria Coniglio picked up 12 digs. Sophomore outside hitter Morgan Weeg (Goodyear, Ariz.) led Simmons with 10 kills, while first year hitter Jarene Harberts (Naples, Fla.) swung for seven kills. Sophomore Kenna McCarthy (Shelter Island, N.Y.) and first year Faith Gray-Williams (Las Vegas, Nev.) each set for 11 assists and rookie libero Julia Fusco (Beverly, Mass.) registered 10 digs.
The Sharks entered the season with 12 players, who are either playing in their first or second year of collegiate volleyball in addition to two juniors and a pair of seniors. As with most young teams, Simmons struggled to find its rhythm to begin the season, owning an 8-7 mark, before winning 13 of its last 15 matches. The service line is where the team has lived and died, ranking eighth in the nation with 3.18 aces per frame, but they have also committed 116 more service errors than aces. The Sharks have overcome any serving inconsistencies by limiting attack opportunites of their opponents.
Simmons are led by Weeg, who currently leads the GNAC and ranks 12th in the nation with 4.28 kills per set and is only the second player in school history to eclipse 400 kills in a season with 411. The second-year player has also been efficient on the attack with a .272 hitting mark to place seventh among conference leaders and her consistency has been key with 10 or more kills in 26 of 30 matches. The outside hitter holds her own on the defensive side of the net as well with 2.04 digs per set to stand second on the team. Joining Weeg as a feared offensive threat is Harberts, who has enjoyed an outstanding rookie campaign. The rookie is averaging 3.12 kills per set to stand fifth in the league and first among rookies, while picking up 2.02 digs per set. She has hit a respectable .147 for the year and has been a threat from the service line with 31 aces.
The Sharks have run a six-two rotation this season to take advantage of two talented setters on the squad. McCarthy was the primary setter a year ago and Gray-Williams has combined with her to make up one of the league's most formidable setting positions, contributing to 10.5 assists per set to rank second in the league. McCarthy ranks sixth in the GNAC with 0.60 aces per set, while setting for just under five assists per frame. She can also support the defensive effort as evidenced by 1.37 digs per set. Gray-Williams has shown the ability to help control a match from the service line as well with 0.54 aces per set and has averaged just under four and a half assists per frame. She leads the team with 15 solo blocks and has recorded a total of 32 for the year.
While, Weeg and Harberts have provided most of the offensive firepower, senior Amber Peterson (Las Vegas, Nev.) and first year Riley Roberge (Peoria, Ariz.) have been ultimate team players, playing out of position for the balance of the season. Peterson has seen action for most of her career on the right side, but has filled the void at middle hitter and done so admirably, picking her spots to average 1.46 kills and doing it efficiently with a .263 hitting mark, while Roberge, who made her bones as a setter, has proved to be deceptively productive as a hitter, using her athleticism and potent follow-through to put down 1.62 kills per frame at a .178 clip. Both players have been excellent from the service line with 50 aces apiece to rank among the league's top 20 servers. To solidify the team, junior middle blocker Alexandra Erk Thompson (Canton, Mass.) returned from injury just two weeks ago and has immediately made an impact, averaging 1.14 kills per set, while exceeding expectations with a .327 hitting percentage and .50 blocks per set.
Simmons bet on its rookies to handle the defensive duties this season and came out ahead with Fusco earning GNAC Libero of the Week honors twice, while averaging 3.53 digs per set. First year defensive specialist Morgan Lauvray (Murrieta, Calif.) has quietly been one of the most steady performers for the Sharks, averaging 1.54 digs per set with the ability to record double-digit digs on any given day.
The Wildcats have followed up last season's historic run with what they had hoped. More of the same, but better. The team set an NCAA record for consecutive sets won and has led the nation in team hitting percentage, fueled by two players in the top four in Division III, for almost the entire season. The team's .335 hitting mark is by far and away the best in the country, while holding opponents to the third-lowest mark of any team in Division III. Johnson & Wales boasts seven players, who average 1.74 kills per set and all own a hitting percentage of .268 or better.
Sophomore Kate Walker leads the nation with a staggering hitting mark of .509, while putting down 2.77 kills per set and coming up with 0.86 blocks per set. She's joined in the efficiency department by first year Hannah Dolan, who swings for 2.10 kills per set at a .412 hitting rate to give the Wildcats two of the best middle blockers in the country. Sophomore outside hitter Maria Coniglio leads the team with 3.26 kills and hits .289 to go with 3.0 digs per set, while junior transfer Katie Leidhold has fit right in at outside hitter with 2.69 kills and a .296 hitting mark in addition to 2.58 digs per frame. Sophomore Brylee Frank is the best setter in the league and averages 10.64 assists per set to go with 31 aces, while first year libero Elyssa Nicolas leads the Wildcats with 4.16 digs per set to go with 25 aces in her first year of play.