In a sense, there was no other way it could have, or should have, been done.
Fairfield volleyball has consistently been a good team over the past decade, garnering numerous awards for individual players and half a dozen regular season titles in that span.
A very good team, but not great. They could not be considered great until they overcame the final hurdle: making it back into the NCAA Tournament. Every time they found themselves at that hurdle, the Siena Saints were there waiting for them, and every time Siena was there to stop them.
That is, until this past Sunday.
Perhaps never before in Fairfield history has a win exorcised more ghosts, avenged more former players, so invigorated a fan base, and generally meant more to a team than Fairfield volleyball’s 3-2 stunning come-from-behind victory over Siena in the MAAC Tournament Championship Final.
In a match that tested their limits both physically and mentally, Fairfield scratched and clawed their way back from a two sets to none deficit, to win the match and send themselves to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001.
After defeating Niagara on Saturday in four sets to earn their second consecutive trip to the MAAC Tournament Championship game, and sixth appearance in the last eight years, Fairfield took on a Siena team that they had defeated earlier in the season in four sets.
But history was on Siena’s side. The Saints were 8-0 in MAAC Tournament finals, with six of those wins coming against Fairfield. They had met Fairfield in the finals every year between 2005 and 2008, winning every one of those games, sending them to four straight NCAA Tournaments, and sending Fairfield home.
After trading points in the first set, the Saints eventually established a three point lead at 12-9, and maintained that lead for the rest of the match, going on to win 25-20.
The second set started off with a service ace for Siena, off a serve that changed direction after hitting the net hard, and finding a no-man’s land in Fairfield’s defense.
Throughout the set, the ball seemed to find the ground consistently on Fairfield’s side, while the Stags’ shots were either always defended well, or fell just out of bounds.
Despite that, Fairfield did battle to a 23-20 lead following a kill from Brianna Dixion ’13, one of her 17 kills for the game. The Saints would answer, however, and score seven of the next nine points, winning the second set 27-25. It appeared as though history was destined to repeat itself, and Siena was well on its way to another NCAA Tournament berth.
“I think it was a little bit of nerves, mixed with a little bit of panic that sort of set in,” said senior Kara Reis about why the team got down so early. “It was panicking in the sense that we were overcompensating, we were doing too much. And it backfired—we weren’t making the plays that we normally do. We weren’t staying relaxed, we weren’t focused.”
“In the locker room, I said ‘We’ve got to flip the switch, guys. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again,’” added Reis.
No one knows what that switch Reis alluded to better than Head Coach Alija Pittenger, saying “they decide when they want to flip it on and make plays.”
“We told them it’s up to them, and if they wanted to, they could get it done.”
That switch was not hit directly after halftime, as even in the crucial third set, Fairfield found themselves down 15-12. But a Camille Coffey’15 kill started a rally that led the Stags to take 13 of the next 19 points, giving them the 25-21 win in the set, and keeping their hopes alive.
The fourth set was dominated by Fairfield early on, as they jumped to an early 6-0 lead behind the serving of Carsen Mata ’15. Siena yet again answered, and soon had a two advantage at 16-14. After a serving error by the Saints, Coffey again came up big by serving four straight points to regain the lead, and Fairfield would take the set 25-20, forcing a fifth and final set.
By that fifth set, it seemed that everyone in the packed and loud Alumni Hall knew what was transpiring before their eyes: a monumental shift, and the collapse of a team that had dominated the Stags in years past. This moment seemed impossible.
Fairfield jumped out to another early lead behind Mata’s serving, and led 4-0. The Stags maintained that lead and momentum, which carried them to a 15-11 victory in the set, capped off by a Marilyn Peizer ‘15 kill, sealing their trip to their first NCAA Tournament in over a decade, and finishing off the season and collapse for Siena.
“I literally don’t have words for how happy I am—this is the best feeling in the entire world,” said Reis with tears in her eyes after the marathon final game was over. “I could not be happier with my team and my coaches. I wouldn’t trade this moment for anything in the world.”
“What a way to win a MAAC Championship, you know? Being down 2-0, coming back and winning in the fifth set, it’s unreal,” said Reis.
“It’s like we broke a curse, it really is, and it’s always us against Siena,” said Dixion. “It’s like they have our number, and we finally pulled out a win, and a big one at that. It just feels unbelievable.”
Pittenger didn’t try to hold back emotions after the game as well. “I’m just so proud of this team right now. To come back and win those three games, that’s incredible in any game, and considering it was a final, even more so,” said Pittenger. “Siena is a great team, they fight for every single point, they’re not going to give anything away … I’m so proud of [the team], and making that happen, because it was all them, they just made it happen.”
One surprise of the tournament was the play of Marilyn Peizer, who saw limited action during the season due to injury. She finished Sunday with 11 kills, tied for second most on the team with Hayley Moyer ’14.
“My coaches have been training me all year to be versatile … so I’ve been training at different positions and trying to understand the different positions, and I know when I come in, my teammates will be there to support me,” said Peizer.
“She was a difference maker absolutely, if we didn’t have her, it would have been a different story. She did a great job doing whatever we asked of her,” said Pittenger regarding Peizer.
Peizer was named to the All-Tournament Team, along with teammates Dixion and Rachel Romansky’14.
Dixion was named the 2012 MAAC Volleyball Championship Most Valuable Player after posting 34 kills and 23 digs in the two matches over the weekend.
“I can’t even believe it, I was so surprised by it. It really takes all of us to do this … I went up to every one of my teammates and was like, ‘You did this [for me]’. Each little piece fit in to make one big puzzle.”
Never before in MAAC history has a team come back to win a match in the tournament final after being down two sets to none. The 118 digs for Fairfield is good for second-most all-time in a single game in program history, and the most ever in a MAAC Tournament game for Fairfield.
Romansky finished with 47 assists and a season high of 22 digs, joining Mata, Reis, and Coffey as the four Stags to have 20 or more digs. Romansky also moved into second all time in Fairfield history by notching her 3,506th dig of her career.
In a way, this victory was for more than just the players on this team. This victory was for Lindsey Lee ’07, Katie Mann ’09, Haililani Pokipala ’11, and every player who has come through the program in recent years and has seen their tournament hopes dashed year after year by the same nemesis. It was for every fan who came to the games, every person who came to help the team in any way, and every person who saw this team flounder with years of frustration under Siena’s dominance.
Now the Stags will go on the road to play the University of Southern California in the opening round game of the NCAA Tournament this Friday at 10:30 p.m. EST.
But no matter the outcome of that game, this team knows it has made history and will live in Fairfield sports lore for years to come.