Any reader of this blog knows that I can be critical of the New England and New York regions at times. Some might even suggest that I can be obsessive about it. It’s possible that a well placed spouse may have suggested counseling awhile back. (I assume the suggestion was regarding this issue. I’d ask but I haven’t seen her for awhile. I think the cats gone, too.) So, even though this blog is about the West Region and its greatness in volleyball, I thought I maybe owed a kind word or two to the New England Region and there is no place better to start (probably also finish because this will NOT become a habit) then with Coach Somera. Make that, Coaches Somera.
The rapid rise of the Johnson & Wales program since Coach Nancy Somera has been nothing short of amazing. Since taking over the program right before the start of the 2014 season, Coach Somera turned a 15-20 team into 17-16 in 2015 followed by 23-8 in 2016 and then two seasons with one loss each. In November, Coach Somera was honored with the AVCA National Coach of the Year Award prior to their Elite 8 match. At that point, the Wildcats were undefeated and were the runaway national leader in hitting percentage. Unfortunately for the Wildcats they would go on to lose to Calvin in a three game sweep where they hit only 0.096. The New England critic (um, that would typically be me) would then be likely to bring up this one match as an example of the problems with the region. But, that’s not the case here. (Trust me…I’ll get there.)
You see the season prior (2016), Johnson & Wales also went undefeated before being swept by UMass-Boston in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and I believe this was an example of the problems with the vast majority of the New England teams. You see, the Wildcats went the entire 2016 season without leaving the region and really not playing anyone of consequence. In fact, prior to the UMass-Boston match, they had only dropped two games all year (both to Rivier in separate matches). They weren’t challenged, not only by other teams but I believe they weren’t challenged by the coaching staff for setting up that schedule. The lack of travel and tough schedules is the root of my criticism of the New England and New York regions but that changed in 2017.
In 2017, the Wildcats started the year in New York (baby steps) and took down Nebraska Wesleyan, NYU, Albion and Kean. None are outstanding programs although Kean did make the NCAA Tournament. Again, baby steps. Later in the month, the Wildcats swept MIT in a match that wasn’t really close while hitting .330 and eyebrows were raised. At least mine were and they are very bushy so they probably count as two sets. The Wildcats then did something shocking as they traveled down to Juniata in Pennsylvania where they easily swept Susquehanna (average to good team) and then took down Juniata in 5-sets. They ended up hitting 0.368 and 0.172 but it’s the 0.172 that was impressive to me. Juniata was a good team playing at home and the Wildcats took them out without dominating the hitting side of things. It wasn’t the largest of sample sizes but a lot better than 2016 and a great step forward then previous seasons. So, when Calvin took down the Wildcats I don’t think blame can be placed on the 2017 schedule. Sure it could have been even tougher but what match is going to prepare you for playing a good Calvin team in front of their own crowd.
This is a long way around me saying that I love the direction the Johnson & Wales team is going. My last post mentioned that no New England team has appeared in the Final 4 in the last 10 years. It’s not going to surprise me if the Wildcats’ schedule is even tougher this year and if we don’t see this streak broken in 2018.
Now I didn’t specifically say that Johnson & Wales would be the team to break the streak because there is a little matter of the “other” Coach Somera. Husband Ben Somera coaches over at Wesleyan after taking over that program in 2015. After starting that year off at 5-15 and going 15-8 in 2016, the “other” Coach Somera saw his team finish 22-6, capture the NESCAC Championship (first time ever) and win a first round NCAA Tournament match against Wellesley. The Cardinals would get bounced in the second round to “gulp” Johnson & Wales but it took 5-sets and I’m sure some dirty looks from the other side of the court to do it. But, again, the kind word I want to give to this program relates to their scheduling. To start off with, Wesleyan has a bit of advantage in the New England Region because their conference can be tougher than most. But, after two years of not leaving the region, the Cardinals made trips to Christopher Newport and Juniata while also scheduling Johnson & Wales during the regular season. Again, I love this direction and I so hope more New England schools can find the budget to follow suit.
That’s a lot less words on the “other” Coach Somera but, heck, go win an ACVA National Coach of the Year Award, why don’t you. So, there you have it. Kind words (deserving words) by me on two New England programs but don’t think I’m not nervous waiting to see your 2018 schedules. (Love it when I end a post with a double negative. Poetry.)