‘There were a lot of people that doubted us’: Quinnipiac volleyball defies odds with MAAC title and NCAA bid

Michael LaRocca, Opinion Editor

 For the first time in program history, Quinnipiac volleyball is going dancing, not like the team was surprised. 

“I think there were a lot of people that doubted us,” senior hitter Aryanah Diaz said. “I think some of it came from within the school. So I want those people to know that we don’t have anything to prove, we’re just going out there and giving it our all, fighting as much as we can.” 

The Bobcats drew the top-seeded Wisconsin Badgers, the defending national champions, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Dec. 2. 

Heading into the MAAC Tournament a few weeks ago, I was optimistically skeptical. At least as much as someone who followed this team all season could be. 

“By the next time I write a volleyball column, we might just see this team be champions,” I tweeted after my previous column from Nov. 15, was released. 

Was I expecting to be right? That’s up for debate. However, I was certainly not ready to watch this team go on a run for the ages. 

As the MAAC Tournament’s sixth seed, Quinnipiac was able to knock off the No. 3 Iona Gaels in four sets in the quarterfinals before defeating the No. 7 Rider Broncs in straight sets in a rematch of the 2021 MAAC semifinals. 

After the Bobcats’ beat the Broncs, they advanced to the program’s third-ever conference championship game, and for the third time this season, they faced the No. 1 Fairfield Stags. 

Fairfield was one of the few MAAC teams that Quinnipiac could not beat during the regular season, getting swept off the court both times. This time however, things were different. 

The Bobcats played one of their most complete matches of the season, taking the MAAC title in four sets, punctuated by a kill from graduate student middle blocker Nicole Legg. 

“You’ve got to be patient and put the time in to actually learn how to win,” Quinnipiac head coach Kyle Robinson said. “That’s what we’ve been doing all season. I think a lot of people thought we were just not good. I was like, ‘No, we’re pretty good, but you have to work at it.’” 

The team came alive against the Stags both offensively and defensively. Five Bobcats were able to reach double-digit kills while preventing any Stag from reaching that milestone themselves. Not even the MAAC Player of the Year, KJ Johnson, could get there, as she was held to eight kills on .121 hitting. 

While the championship is what matters most in the end, Quinnipiac also dominated the 2022 MAAC Volleyball Awards. Diaz was named to the All-MAAC First Team, Legg was put on the All-MAAC Second Team, and setter Damla Gunes was the only Quinnipiac freshman to make the All-MAAC Rookie Team. 

Diaz was also named the MVP of the MAAC Tournament, and the Giovagnoni/Gunes duo were also members of the MAAC All- Championship team. 

With the program’s historic run in the books, Quinnipiac will now be looking forward to playing the defending national champions. 

Even though the Badgers are at the pinnacle of the sport, there is no fear in the Bobcats as they get ready for their trip to Madison this week. 

“It’s definitely going to be a crazy atmosphere,” Quinnipiac assistant coach Katie Urycki said. “I think the overall message is that they have gotten here for a reason. Their hard work, their skill, everything that they’ve put in their mindset, the fight that they had in the tournament, nothing changes.”

Head coach Kyle Robinson has led the Bobcats since 2019. (Ephemia Nicolakis/Quinnipiac Athletics)

Despite the optimism, history is certainly not on the new MAAC champions’ side. 

MAAC champions have lost 60-consecutive sets in the NCAA Tournament dating back to Dec. 6, 2002 when Manhattan volleyball took the first set of their first round loss to the Temple Owls. 

A MAAC team hasn’t won a match in the NCAA Tournament since 1995 when Siena beat Colgate 3-1 in the tournament’s play-in game. That victory for Siena is actually the MAAC’s only win in the NCAA Tournament since the conference earned an automatic bid in 1994. Needless to say, these Bobcats will have their work cut out for them. 

Wisconsin secured its program’s fourth-straight Big Ten regular season championship and also won its last 18-straight matches heading into the NCAA tournament, dating back to Sept. 25, when it lost in straight sets to the then-No. 8 Minnesota Golden Gophers. 

Big Ten schools have a great volleyball tradition as well. Since the turn of the millennium, schools that are current members of the conference have won 11 national championships, including six from Penn State alone. Playing against schools like this might require an adjustment for the Bobcats. 

Having the chance to play in the UW Field House will put Quinnipiac in an environment likely no player has ever seen before. The venue in Madison boasts a 7,540-seat capacity, a far cry from several hundred people usually in attendance at Burt Kahn Court. 

However, the unusual crowd size does not worry the Bobcats, at least not publicly. 

“I think the cool thing about Wisconsin and their atmosphere is that they have classy fans,” Robinson said. “So as much as they’re rooting for their team, they’ll show us respect … The atmosphere can be a little overwhelming, because it’s a lot of people for these young athletes for their first time playing in front of such a large crowd, but I think our athletes are prepared.” 

The Badgers also pose a unique challenge for the Bobcats when it comes to physical size. Quinnipiac’s tallest player is Legg, who stands at a solid six feet, three inches. Wisconsin, however, has six players listed at that same height or taller. One of those players includes sophomore middle blocker Anna Smrek, who stands at six feet and nine inches, five inches taller than the MAAC’s tallest player. 

While Quinnipiac players like Diaz are sick of people saying their height can be a disadvantage, it will play a real factor on Friday. However, the team is coming up with ideas to work around it. 

“I don’t want to give away all my secrets,” Diaz said. “I have some shots that I can pull out, definitely some skill that I think you only gain as a short hitter. I’m definitely gonna try to work around the block, using the block, things like that that I’ve done before.” 

This is an unprecedented time for Quinnipiac volleyball and Quinnipiac athletics as a whole, and for now, I don’t think anyone wants it to end.