By Karl Ortegon '18
When Ben Somera took over the Wesleyan volleyball team in 2015, he inherited a program that hadn't posted a winning NESCAC record since 2008. In his first year, the Cardinals mustered a 1-9 conference record.
Somera's first season was the start of a rebuilding phase which has given way to a meteoric rise from the program, and the team that only produced one NESCAC win three years ago now feels like a distant memory.
In 2016, the team bounced back with a 6-4 NESCAC record—the Cardinals' first winning season in conference play in eight years. They qualified for the NESCAC Tournament seeded sixth out of eight teams but lost to third-seeded Amherst in their first match. A loss is a loss, but the team was certainly moving in the right direction.
This year, Wesleyan boasts a 17-4 overall record and 7-1 NESCAC mark. Their only losses have come at the hands of then-nationally-ranked No. 9 Juniata (twice, again when they ranked No. 19), conference foe Bates, and the top team in the New England region, No. 14 Johnson & Wales (where, incidentally, Somera's wife Nancy is the head coach). The Cardinals have brought in a stellar freshman class, including the October 2nd NESCAC Player of the Week Harper Graves and libero Phia Bellizzi, the latter of which is second in the conference in digs per set (6.12) and third in overall digs (422) this season. Sophomore Nicole Hilton has been strong, too, as she ranks second in the conference in hitting percentage (.340).
Three big highlights in 2017 have been a road win against then-No. 24 Christopher Newport in a thrilling five-set bout, along with another 3-2 grudge match victory against 2016 NESCAC Champions Middlebury, also on the road. On top of that, the Cardinals claimed ownership of the Little Three title for the first time since 1992 after defeating Amherst and Williams in decisive three-set victories.
Though the team is very young, lone senior Sarah Swenson '18 doesn't feel any lopsidedness in terms of experience and leadership.
"We decided at the beginning of this season that one thing we really wanted to work on as a team was doing away with a hierarchy based on grade," said Swenson. "Each member of the team brings valuable input to games and practices, to the point where it really feels like we're all at the same level, and I love it."
Swenson has seen, first-hand, the overhaul and renovations that the team has undergone in just three seasons with Somera.
"We owe a big part of this to Ben [Somera]. Ever since he got here, he has worked endlessly to create a team dynamic with high standards and with goals of winning championships. But, part of the credit also goes to our team. We are an extremely tight-knit group. You will find us at any meal together, or at the basement of the library at night. Being close friends as well as teammates allows us to form great chemistry on the court and during practice."
Swenson also noted a big change in practice, and what that means for the season and for the program's future.
"Our practice atmosphere is something that, as an athlete, I have never experienced and that gives me a great feeling about how far we can go. After our first open gym in preseason, Madeleine [Lundberg] and I looked at each other and we were completely astonished. We knew from that first day that we were going to be better than ever before; that we were going to turn the program around this season."
Lundberg, a junior, has also been heavily invested in the team's future and has seen the notable difference in play that the Cardinals have put forth this year.
"It's really exciting to be a member of a team that's on such a strong upward trajectory, and it's also really fun to continue to surprise the rest of the NESCAC as we improve immensely every season. Winning the Little Three was one of the best moments of my Wes career. It was so awesome to see all of our hard work pay off, and also to prove to ourselves and to the rest of the league (and country!) that Wesleyan volleyball is, and will continue to be, a force to be reckoned with."
From a coaching standpoint, Somera points out the exceptional performances being displayed by non-starters as what has been "most exciting" to him this year. He says that the team's depth gives them the ability to utilize unique line-ups during gameplay and expand what's capable on the court, making it harder for opponents to scout the Cardinals' style.
Wesleyan hasn't had a perfect season, though, and after a 16-1 start, the Cardinals were knocked to the ground in mid-October with a three-match losing streak. Somera offered some tactics for staying tough against difficult teams, and how the team regroups for the next match.
"When faced with adversity I believe it is really important to focus on the things you have control over and not waste time and energy worrying about the things you don't have control over. When you are able to focus your mind and attention on the proper things you become more comfortable or confident in adverse or competitive situations."
With a shift in team culture and the athletic ability of the underclassmen, Wesleyan is charging hard as the postseason nears. They close out the regular season with a home stand against Bowdoin and Tufts on October 27th (8 p.m.) and 28th (1 p.m.), respectively, hoping to keep the Bates loss as their only conference setback this year. Tufts is the lone undefeated team in NESCAC competition thus far, while Bowdoin sits at 7-1 alongside Wesleyan.
"We're preparing for Bowdoin and Tufts by continuing to push ourselves in practice," said Lundberg. "We have so much talent in our gym, and every single girl on the team brings so much both in skill and in energy, and we all push ourselves to play our hardest every day."
How the Cardinals play the rest of this season will determine their fate for the big dance, as they hope to qualify for the NCAA Division III Tournament after the NESCAC Championships. The remaining two regular-season matches will be a true test for this new-look Wesleyan team, and the Cardinals will rely on their improved team dynamics and leadership from upperclassmen like Lundberg and Swenson to gain momentum heading into championship season.