Inside Madison Square Garden on the morning of Aug. 6, the communications staff for the Big East Conference prepared its release of the volleyball coaches’ preseason poll, an annual exercise in bewilderment for Seton Hall head coach Allie Yaeger.
The seventh-year Pirates leader looked at the projections and saw what she had seen for four straight seasons: Seton Hall outside the four postseason spots.
“Yeah, you know, I don’t really have an answer to that,” Yaeger said in a recent interview. “This year we did get picked to come in fifth, finally, which is the most respect we’ve gotten in a really long time.”
The fifth-place projection was the highest for her team since 2013, the final year of the old conference alignment. In both that season and the prior season, Yaeger’s team fell short of its preseason ranking.
However, since 2014 the overlooked Pirates established a benchmark for pulsating, hard-working, competitive volleyball, exceeding outside expectations every season, with two Big East Tournament appearances and one NCAA Tournament berth to boot.
“In my opinion, when people put their pre-season polls in, there’s years that, yes, we’re young, and there’s years that, yes, we’re old, but, I really want the respect from the other coaches,” Yaeger said.
“I want people, when they go to cast their vote for the pre-season ballot, to be like, ‘Seton Hall’s young, but, how bad could they really be? They’re always a good program,’” Yaeger went on to say. “Or, ‘They have injuries, but, how bad could they really be? They’re always going to have a good product out on the floor.’”
This season, though, the program’s reputation for turning water into wine is in serious jeopardy.
Dominique Mason, an explosive outside hitter over the previous two seasons, is now a part of the coaching staff. Sharay Barnes, another venerable outside hitter, also played her final season last fall. And, Sarah Kenneweg, a vocal defensive specialist, graduated in the spring.
Three promising freshmen, Eden Dolezal, Claire Forrest and Emilee Turner, are all being called upon to contribute, especially Dolezal and Turner. Meanwhile, veteran middle blocker Madison Salkowski has been sidelined with a leg injury.
The departures, inexperience and injury add up to an 0-4 start in the Big East, the worst opening stretch of conference season under Yaeger.
“When it looks good for us, it looks fantastic, and at times when it looks bad, it does not look so hot,” Yaeger said. “So, we have to find a medium in between there to put out more of a consistent product on the floor. But, when it comes to talent, this is one of the most talented teams I’ve ever coached at Seton Hall.”
With five seniors and three juniors, a 5-12 overall record at this stage seems surreal. The four opening losses in the Big East were demoralizing enough, but couple them with a five-set loss to Hofstra on Sept. 15, in which the Pirates gave away a two-set lead, and the gloomy aura only emanates stronger.
But despite the tribulation, the Pirates will not feel hopeless – they have been counted out before.
The chance to play three matches away from Walsh Gymnasium over a two-week span might be just what the team needs, for no other reason than the fact that it will allow Yaeger and her players to embrace the role they so often find themselves in.
“Being overlooked, it’s kind of nice always being the underdog,” senior setter Sophia Coffey said. “I always kind of enjoy that, beating teams that you’re not supposed to.”
When the travel ceases, the Pirates will have their longest home-stand of the season, with four contests inside Walsh from Oct. 12 to Oct. 20. Whether Yaeger’s team is playing for pride or still chasing down their pesky preseason projection will depend on the next couple of weeks.
Until her program is no longer able to strive for the ultimate prize, Yaeger’s aspirations will not waver.
“I always say this, one of the best things about this team is that, I don’t have to worry about what our goals are, because our goal is to always win a Big East Championship,” Yaeger said. “The girls know that, my coaching staff knows that, I know that. When all of us lay our heads down on our pillows at night, we know that that’s what we want at the end of the day.”
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.