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It was August 20. Seton Hall volleyball coach Allison Yaeger looked at the Big East Preseason Poll and shook her head. Seton Hall was picked to finish sixth in the league.
“We were disappointed,” Yaeger said. “But, it did serve as a tool for motivation. We just decided to play with a chip on our shoulders.”
Flash forward to October 30, Yaeger’s not shaking her head anymore. Instead, she’s coaching an historic season.
All the Pirates have done is won 20 of 26 this fall, rolling to their first 20-win season since 2003. The team is one of just 13 in the country to currently have 20 wins. The program has not seen this successful of a start since the Pirates went 31-4 in 1994. With eight Big East wins and seven to play in the league, The Hall is just one win shy of setting a program record for conference wins in a season. The blue and white’s remarkable season has also been highlighted by a 12-match winning streak which spanned from Sept. 13 to Oct. 17.
It starts with the Manthorpe sisters who have led a group that has six of their 13 players graduating this year. Already a Big East honoree in her first three seasons, Shelbey Manthorpe has not changed much about her style of play. The senior garnered Big East Offensive Player of the Week on both Sept. 29 and Oct. 6 and has already been honored by the league three times.
“We know that this is it for us,” Shelbey Manthorpe said. “Some of my best memories as a player come from when I was a freshman. That was the last time that we tasted the postseason. I know that this group of seniors doesn’t want to leave this school without tasting that one more time.”
Shelbey, who leads the team with 9.81 assists per set, forms part one of quite a duo with her sister Stacey, who has been named to the conference’s honor roll four times this season. Stacey currently averages more than a whole kill more than anybody else on the team.
The Hall has been so much more than an offensive team, though, with a front line that leads the Big East in opponent hitting percentage (.148). The 2.90 blocks per set for the Pirates will continue to be critical for this team to have success. Senior Ashani Rubin has averaged 1.40 blocks per set, and behind her is junior Amanda Hansen at 1.23, giving SHU two in the top five in blocking. Hansen has added 2.29 kills per set, the third-highest mark on the team.
A .239 hitting percentage, which is the third-best mark in the Big East, has also been one of the many things that the Pirates have done well to rise up.
“Our distribution has never been this good,” Stacey Manthorpe said.
Molly Grammer has given the Pirates the best volleyball that Yaeger said she’s seen from the junior. Grammer is second on the team with 2.40 kills per set and has a .233 attacking percentage. Dani Schroeder and Simona Sekulova have also offered a boost for the Pirates as Yaeger has toyed with different options at outside hitter.
One of the biggest question marks heading into this fall was whether SHU could replace all-time digs leader Alyssa Warren, who graduated at the end of last year.
“You just don’t replace Alyssa (Warren), but you can try to use her example” sophomore libero Tessa Fournier said. “I’ve tried to make the role my own.” Fournier played in all but one set last season for the Pirates, learning under Warren. She has been named to the Big East Honor Roll multiple times and most recently, tallied a match-high 27 in a 3-1 win over LIU Brooklyn on Tuesday.
The Hall’s libero-in-waiting that has grown into a defensive piece for the team is 5-foot freshman Sarah Kenneweg. The newcomer has averaged 2.03 digs per set.
“Being our only freshman, Sarah had to jump right in with an experienced group,” Yaeger said. “We couldn’t be happier with what she’s brought to us and how she carries herself already.”
Along with Kenneweg, junior Sara Connell has tallied 2.17 digs per set for the Pirates and has assisted defensively.
Despite the Pirates’ strong season, there is still work to be done. At 8-3 in the Big East, SHU sits with a one-game lead in fourth, which is the final eligible spot to be in the Big East Tournament.
“There’s little room for error in the Big East,” Stacey Manthorpe said.
Before last weekend, the Pirates had only suffered one home loss. But, Xavier handed the Pirates a 3-2 defeat and Butler came in on Saturday night, winning 3-0 inside Walsh Gym.
“While that wasn’t the way we wanted the weekend to go, I think we needed that,” Yaeger said. “It’s something that every team goes through sometimes. We’ve hit our bump in the road and we were once at the top. We can get back there.”
The weekend of play starts with The Hall taking on St. John’s at 7 p.m. on Thursday in Queens. In the first meeting between the two, the Pirates edged past the Red Storm, 3-2. St. John’s is on the outside looking in for a Big East Tournament berth at 5-5 in the league, sitting in sixth place.
“Every time we get together, it’s always fun,” Yaeger said.
“We know them and they know us,” Shelbey Manthorpe added.
One of the remarkable things about this season for Seton Hall is that the Pirates only have one Big East road loss, a 3-1 defeat at the hands of third-place Marquette.
The Hall will also travel to Rhode Island this weekend to take on Providence on Saturday at 5 p.m. The Friars, who are in their inaugural year in the Big East after playing as a member of the America East for the previous 12 years.
“We’ve got to control what we can control,” Shelbey Manthorpe said. “It’s not about other teams if you ask me. If we’re going to get back to where we want to be, it’s going to be because of what we do first.”
John Fanta can be reached at email@example.com or on twitter @John_Fanta