Raiders getting used to being GNAC underdog

Photo courtesy of Rivier University Rivier volleyball senior Hayley Macken hopes she can help lead the Raiders and their coach, Craig Kolek (background) to their once familiar No. 1 spot in the GNAC.

NASHUA – Suddenly, they aren’t the envy of the Great Northeast Athletic Conference any longer.

No, the Rivier University women’s volleyball team hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in nearly three years. There’s a new GNAC sherrif in town, Johnson & Wales, with two straight conference titles and currently ranked sixth nationally in Division III. J&W beat Rivier in the finals two years ago and last season the Raiders fell in the semis to Simmons on the road.

“Our goal is to make it to the finals, and play the best teams,” Raiders coach Craig Kolek said. “We look forward to playing Johnson & Wales in that atmosphere.”

Last year the Raiders had a whopping nine freshman, many of whom Kolek feels “are still developing” as sophomores.

The Raiders began the season this past weekend with four matches at the Kean Invitational in New Jersey. They lost, as was expected, 3-0 to Kean, Vassar, and Wisconsin Eau-Claire. But, which they really focused on, they downed Western New England 3-1.

“That was the match we had our eye on,” Kolek said. “We knew we’d go 1-3.”

Meanwhile, Kolek feels the GNAC is “wide open in spots 2 through 12”.

Overall, he said, “I like our defense. We were really scrappy. We had a lot of new players on the court and they played really well together.”

Leading the Raiders is returning senior Hayley Macken, their 5-8 senior sette who two years ago was an Honorable Mention All-American.

Another part of the nucleus in Kolek’s mind is a pair of juniors, outside hitter Taylor Dunster and 5-11 middle hitter Jess Whyte. “She played sparingly last year,” he said of Whyte, “but she had a really good off-season.”

As noted, Kolek had a huge recruiting class for last year’s roster. This year, though, three freshman may make an immediate impact. He likes what he sees from setter-hitter Avery Pollard, libero Leah Giamtietro, and outside hitter Sydney Racevicius.

Pollard played at Burnt Hills, N.Y. High School, an eastern volleyball factory just outside of Albany. Racevicius (Woodbury, Conn.) was her conference’s Player of the Year at Cheshire Academy.

“They’ve all got some experience and some grit,” Kolek said.

The lone local on the team is 6-2 Litchfield’s Courtney Collins, a middle hitter who is a grad student, using her last year of eligibility after competing for Keene State.

Speaking of KSC, they’ll be competing with Riv, RIT, Plymouth State and New England College in this weekend’s Granite State Challenge.

And it looks like a challenge is what this season will be for the Raiders, and what they also want to give conference favorite Johnson & Wales, whom they play in Providence on Oct. 13.

“I like this team, Kolek said. “I think we have a little bit more of everything over last year.”

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Here’s a look at what some locals are doing at schools elsewhere:

Nashua’s Makena Leazer, a freshman at Lasell College, was named GNAC Rookie of the Week as she recorded her first career collegiate field hockey victory in goal with six saves as Lasell topped Becker University 6-1 this past weekend. Leazer, who was a standout in net for Bishop Guertin the last few seasons, posted a 1.50 goals against average with 12 saves, good for an .800 save percentage. It’s only been two games, but she shares the conference lead in saves, is second in save percentage and fourth in goals-against…

Hudson’s Philip Demers finsished 15h for UMass Lowell in 27:24.6 at the recent Vermont Tri Meet. If you want an up close look at Demers, the River Hawks are using Mines Falls in Nashua as their home course this Saturday for a Pre-Conference meet. It will be the first time the River Hawks have hosted a meet since joining Divison I five years ago….

Nashua’s Chris Jimenez picked up his second straight win in goal, making two big saves in Salem State’s recent 2-0 win over Curry College…

The St. Michael’s College (Colchester, Vt.) women’s soccer team has a pair of locals: former Nashua South standout Emily Durette, now a senior midfielder, and former Hollis Brookline standout Mackenzie Day, looking for more experience after playing in seven games last year. She’s a sophomore back…

Nashua’s Abby French, a junior cross country runner at St. Michael’s College (Colchester, Vt.), recorded her seventh top 10 finish of her career, finishing seventh in the recent Shaklette Invitational with a time of 20:06.