Senior Katie Mann and the Stags will contend for a MAAC title, but have fallen on tough times early this year.  Peter Caty/The Mirror

Senior Katie Mann and the Stags will contend for a MAAC title, but have fallen on tough times early this year. Peter Caty/The Mirror

There were flashes. There were times when execution was perfect, communication was crisp, and the Stags looked every bit the same as the team that came within minutes of an appearance in the NCAA Tournament last November.

Then, there were setbacks.

There were mental errors, there were slips and missed slides, and Fairfield looked every bit like a team searching for its identity in its 3-2 loss to Fordham, its eighth consecutive loss and its first loss at Alumni Hall since a 2007 loss to Hofstra.

“We just have to get mentally stronger,” head coach Alija Pittenger said. “If we don’t learn how to do that, we’re not going to get much better,” Pittenger added.

Despite the early-season growing pains and the piling losses, the Stags have grown considerably since the onset of the season. In particular, Pittenger has seen the rise of a good supporting cast around All-MAAC outside hitter Katie Mann, the only returning senior, and junior Lauren Hughes.

At the center of that progress is this year’s freshman class, which already boasts three players in the starting lineup.

“I think that the freshman have done a pretty good job of picking up what’s going on,” Pittenger said. “I mean it is a difficult situation, (to) come in and play right away, especially with the out-of-conference schedule.”

Of those freshman, Pittenger pointed to the development of freshman Kara Reis, who inherits the libero position vacated by Brandi Higa ’09, formerly one of team’s best defensive players who ranks sixth all-time in hits.

Despite the added pressure of replacing a standout senior and instant playing time, Reis has excelled thus far this season, totaling over 140 digs.

“I think Kara has done a phenomenal job,” Pittenger said of Reis, who totaled 21 digs in Tuesday’s match against Fordham. “She definitely picked it up tonight.”

Reis didn’t hesitate when asked of the reason for the smooth transition.

“I think our coach picked those tough (preseason) tournaments to make us stronger and make us as mentally tougher team,” Reis said. “I think that it helped.

“We were a little scared of them at first, but then it makes you tougher. Even if you lose, it is one of those tough losses that you deal with, you take it, and you work on improving and just try to improve,” she added.

Aside from Reis, freshmen Stephanie Cruz, the Stags’ first player from the tri-state area since Casey Machon ’05, and Briana Dixion have seen meaningful minutes of late. In fact, Dixion, one of the team’s outside hitters, leads the team in kills with 3.55 per game, which ranks fifth among league leaders in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC).

“Briana was pretty solid for us in the beginning of the year so we’re hoping that that continue,” Pittenger said.

Still, Pittenger left no doubt that the team’s success all leads to one player.

“Katie (Mann) is Katie; she’s always been great for us,” Pittenger said of her senior captain, who led the team in kills (12) against Fordham. “She definitely has this vibe on the court where she has a lot of confidence and she helps everyone else out.

“This year, with Katie being the only senior this year, I personally want her to win the MAAC Championships because I think it’d really be a fun way to go out,” Reis said.

If all goes according to plan, Reis, Dixion, and company may help Mann get there after all.

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