The Sacred Heart University women’s volleyball team has won the Northeast Conference (NEC) Championship two years in a row. The Pioneers are competing to maintain their dominance entering the 2022 season as they face their conference opponents and other notable non-conference foes.
“We’ve had a very good run the last few years,” said Head Coach Rob Machan. “This is a brand new team, but we did bring most of our starters back, so it’s a great foundation to work on.”
On Sept. 10 and 11, the team hosted the Sacred Heart Invitational, an event they try to host every year. The Pioneers went 2-1 to claim the tournament crown while playing against some significant competition–Seton Hall University, Princeton University and Stony Brook University.
“Each team finding their own identity is sometimes difficult, but I thought we did a good job this weekend,” said Machan. “Those were great teams we were playing against, and we were pushed really hard, and we didn’t back down.”
The Pioneers went 1-2 at both the UCI Invitational in Irvine, Calif. and the Carolina Classic in Columbia, S.C.
Facing out-of-conference teams in the first few weeks of the season creates an opportunity for the Pioneers to increase their Rating Percentage Index (RPI), a statistic that helps rank Division I volleyball teams across the country, according to NCAA.com.
“Playing teams like South Carolina really helps our RPI, so after our conference play if we make it to the NCAA tournament, that ranking will help us either play a top-five team or a top 15 team,” said graduate setter Sarah Ciszek. “So it really helps to get those wins and sets over those teams.”
With high expectations heading into the season, the players have set aside their past accomplishments and are focusing more on the present.
“This is a completely different team,” said Ciszek. “We kind of want to think past the championships [from last year]because if we dwell on that, it’s just going to bring us down because it’s not the same team.”
The four-time reigning NEC Setter of the Year, Ciszek has been a staple on the Pitt Center court since 2018. She has received NEC Player of the Week honors for the first three weeks of the 2022 season and has won that award a total of 17 times in her career.
“Sarah is one of those unique players that always finds a way to get us out of trouble and make the point work out, even in ways we don’t necessarily practice,” said Machan.
While many starters return from last year, there are some new faces to recognize on the roster, including some in pretty big roles. Camryn Luginbuhl is a sophomore transfer out of the University of Hartford and has already proven what she is capable of in her short time at Sacred Heart..
Luginbuhl currently leads the team in kills and had a 23 kill and 13 dig double-double to lead the Pioneers to a tournament title, clinching victory over Stony Brook.
“She’s learning a new style of play than what she learned before. Her athleticism and athletic gift are perfect for our style of play,” said Machan.
Giving the new players opportunities to adjust is something that senior outside hitter Reagan Palanchi is aiming for when it comes to the expectations of the team’s season.
“We have talked about the togetherness of the team on and off the court to create the bonds in order to move forward,” said Palanchi. “We have to forget what we’ve done in the past because this is a new group.”
Palanchi, who has led the team in blocks the last two years, is once again leading the team in blocks this year.
The Pioneers are next in action on Sept. 16 and 17, as they travel to New Haven to compete in the Yale Invitational. They will play Fordham University on Sept. 16 and then will play Villanova University and Yale University on Sept. 17 before starting NEC play on Sept. 23 when they host Long Island University.
Sacred Heart Athletics contributed to this article.