The defending MAC champions are off to a great start to their season.
By: Will Cunningham
The Eastern Eagles Women’s Volleyball team entered the 2021 season with odds to overcome. The year before, they were unable to play any games due to Covid-19, and Eastern transitioned to a new conference, the MAC Commonwealth, creating a whole new set of opponents to face.
On top of that, 15 of the 17 players on the roster hadn’t played a single game at the collegiate level. Despite all of this, the Eagles enjoyed a terrific season, with a record of 24-6 and going all the way to the conference championship, where they bested Stevenson. They claimed their 22nd conference championship and ended the Mustangs’ nine-year streak of winning the conference.
The rest of the conference has taken notice. Each of the coaches from the other eight MAC Commonwealth schools picked Eastern to repeat as conference champions this year, and there is plenty of reason to believe they will.
A vast majority of Eastern’s key contributors from last year remain on the team. Two of the most significant returners are middle hitter, Bridgette Kelly, and outside hitter, Logan Martin. Kelly led the conference in hitting percentage, as well as the team in blocks and aces. Her efforts earned her many honors her freshman year, such as MAC Commonwealth Player of the Year.
Martin led the conference in kills and was named to the All-MAC First Team. Other returners include All-Conference honorable mentions Elle Jiron-Bujanda and Grace Casagrande, as well as MAC Commonwealth tournament MVP Jailene Lugo.
“I’m excited for all the returners coming back,” middle hitter Natalie Saxton said. “We work very well together and help to bring out the best in each other.”
Along with the returners come seven first-year recruits. Each of them impressed the program in high school and club, and some have already made an impact this season for Eastern.
“[They] contribute so much to our team,” Saxton said when discussing them. “They are amazing teammates and so much fun to be around. They love the game and love each other.”
Despite the talent on the roster, repeating last year’s success will be no easy task. Stevenson, Messiah and York, who were picked to place second, third and fourth in the conference respectively, remain strong teams. They each took Eastern to five sets in every contest last year, with Messiah even winning one of those games.
“You enter a conference and you win it, and all of a sudden you know everybody is shooting for you,” Head Coach Mark Birtwistle said.
Birtwistle also brought up obstacles within the team itself.
“The biggest [challenge] is learning how to play together. We have skill and talent, but we have to put that into use playing together as a group.”
As one takes into account the talent Eastern boasts and these challenges they must work through, one key question arises: can the Eagles repeat as conference champions?
“Yes. If we can focus on one thing at a time, work on getting better every day at practice and work together as a team, then we can repeat,” Saxton said.
Whether they can repeat or not will be answered at the end of the season, but signs have been positive so far. The Eagles started the season winning 6 of their first 8 games, including their first conference match last Monday.