by John Torsiello
When head coach Alija Pittenger and assistant coach Sarah Katinger arrived at Fairfield University a little over five years ago to take over the Stags’ women’s volleyball program, they had a very viable product to work with.
Fairfield had won several Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) regular season titles and was considered one of the Conference’s premier teams. But something was missing — a MAAC Tournament championship and its automatic berth into the NCAA National Tournament.
“That was one thing that was missing,” said Pittenger, as she and Katinger sat in their modest office in Alumni Hall. “The team had won a number of MAAC regular seasons titles. But it wasn’t until this past season that we finally got a Conference tournament title and went to the NCAA.”
That Fairfield beat nemesis Siena at home in the championship match of the MAAC Tournament in November made the victory all the sweeter. It came with enough drama to make for a reality television show. The Stags fell behind two games to none, before rallying for a victory that sent them to the University of Southern California for a first round NCAA Tournament match.
The Stags fell behind early, losing the first two games 25-20 and 27-25.
“We were thinking, Oh, God, this isn’t going to happen again,” Katinger quipped, referring back to the spirit crunching losses Siena hadhanded the Stags over the years. “I think the players willed themselves to not let that happen.”
Then came the turnaround. Fairfield, led by All-Tournament team choices Brianna Dixion ’13, Marilyn Peizer ’15, and Rachel Romansky ’14, came storming back and pulled out the match by winning the next three games. The Stags trailed, 15-12, in the third game and were six points from losing. But that all changed when sophomore Camille Coffey recorded a kill that altered the momentum and sent the Stags on a run that eventually gave them the game, 25-21. They won the fourth game, 25-20, and then the third, 15-1, giving them the championship and the University of Southern California for a first-round NCAA Tournament match.
“It was very sweet to finally get that first Tournament title and finally get to the NCAA’s (where the Stags lost to USC, 3-0),” said Pittinger. “Hopefully, we can continue the tradition next season.”
There were about 300 screaming fans in the stands for the MAAC title tilt and the coaches were thrilled to see several former players at the Conference tournament, as well as in California for the NCAA Tournament match at USC. Fairfield has posted a most impressive 73-17 record over the last five seasons in MAAC regular season play.
Pittinger was the standout player at the University of Michigan and was an assistant coach at Pittsburgh, which won the Big East title and made two NCAA Tournament appearances while she was there. She was honored this past season with the MAAC Coach of the Fairfield women’s volleyball breaks through, and makes first trip to the NCAA MAAC Champs Year award, a trophy she also won in 2011.
While winning the MAAC Tournament finally earned the Stags that elusive trip to the NCAA Tournament, the University’s volleyball program has enjoyed a history of excellence. The program has received significant support from the University’s administration and Athletics Department and has a full allotment of scholarships with which to attract some of the best high school players in the country. The 2012 Fairfield roster read like a United States atlas, with players from Colorado, Hawaii, California, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, Virginia, and Connecticut.
“We have been able to recruit very well in the western part of the United States, especially in Colorado,” said Pittinger. “Winning the MAAC Tournament and playing in the NCAA gained additional visibility for the program and hopefully will make Fairfield an option for more good high school players in the future.”
A number of Fairfield players won MAAC honors this past season. Romansky was named the Conference’s Setter of the Year, while Dixion, Romansky and Caitlin Stapleton ’15 were named All-MAAC First Team, and Nicole Marzik ’16 was named to the All-MAAC Rookie Team, among other team honors.
Pittinger and Katinger have high hopes for a repeat of 2012 this coming fall.
“We lost several key players, but we have almost the entire team back and have somegood recruits coming into the program,” said Pittinger.
Now that the proverbial monkey is off the back of the Fairfield women’s volleyball program, it could open up a run of NCAA trips for the Stags.