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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Rivier University enjoyed some successes this year

By TOM KING

Staff Writer

Local College Journal

NASHUA – They crammed into a hotel room in northern New York state, getting ready for the NCAA regionals the next day. The Rivier University women’s volleyball team didn’t want to do anything until they watched the men’s basketball team compete in the annual Midnight Madness game against city rival Daniel Webster College.

That night back in mid-November, Rivier athletic director Joanne Merrill said, was the most memorable moment for her in the 2013-14 Raider athletics year. ...

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NASHUA – They crammed into a hotel room in northern New York state, getting ready for the NCAA regionals the next day. The Rivier University women’s volleyball team didn’t want to do anything until they watched the men’s basketball team compete in the annual Midnight Madness game against city rival Daniel Webster College.

That night back in mid-November, Rivier athletic director Joanne Merrill said, was the most memorable moment for her in the 2013-14 Raider athletics year.

“It was great,” she said. “We were at Clarkson (University), and everybody was piling into a hotel room to watch the game online. It was just a great feeling.”

For Merrill, that signaled great interest and also the success of the athletic program, with the women competing in yet another NCAA tournament. Fast forward to this month, with the caps and gowns already used and diplomas handed out, and Merrill now can take stock in the Raiders’ athletic year.

For Merrill, the key was two things: Competing and participation.

“We had over 200 athletes participate,” she said. “Some count double, because they play two sports, but again, it was great.

“We were competitive in everything. There was a resurgence for a lot of teams.”

The highlight of the athletic year had to be the success of the men’s volleyball team, which was ranked No. 1 in the nation at one point early in the season (February), won the Great Northeast Athletic Conference but lost in the NCAA Elite Eight. Still, head coach Craig Kolek’s team beat the eventual Division III national champion Springfield College twice.

How did it feel to have, for a short time, the No. 1 ranking?

“It was great,” Merrill said. “Relly fun to feel it. But in a way, it was ‘Careful what you wish for.’ We had always been the team chasing the favorites, as the underdog. But now there was a huge bullseye on our backs.”

Still, the program had two All-Americans as well as the GNAC Player of the Year in Aaron Almario. Almario and teammate Matt Bynon were named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) All-American team.

“Craig worked his magic again,” Merrill said.

Besides the women’s volleyball team winning the GNAC and making the NCAAs, Merrill was happy with the progress the long-struggling men’s soccer team made in its third year under head coach Bill Lawler, losing to Lasell in the GNAC quarterfinals, the Raiders first tourney appearance in the Lawler era despite a 4-12-1 overall mark.

“We had a resurgence in men’s soccer,” Merrill said.

Don’t forget, the Raiders hadn’t won a game in two years.

That’s never been a problem in basketball, a sport Rivier has been ultra competitive and perhaps centered its athletic program around. But try as they might, the Raiders haven’t won the GNAC in men’s hoop since 2007 and the women have fallen short in the conference semis two out of the last three seasons.

And the two teams had the top Division III players in New Hampshire as voted by the coaches, Tom Poitras and Deanna Purcell.

“In both basketballs, our conference is so competitive,” Merrill said. “That’s what the challenge is. I think we had a very good men’s team. But it’s just so challenging.”

The Raider men finished 11-15, 7-11 in the conference and lost in the quarters. The women, of course, had a year worthy of a banner, the best in school history with a 20-8 mark, 9-2 in the conference but lost at St. Joseph’s of Maine in the semis as they did two seasons ago. They got an ECAC berth, but with Purcell entering her senior year, can they get over that hump, win the GNAC and make the NCAAs?

“I hope we can,” Merrill said. “Next year will be interesting because this year we had six seniors. Caitlyn Perry (of Nashua) had a great season for us (as a freshman).”

Perry (7.8 points a game) and Savanna Butterfield of Londonderry (10.4) could spark along with Purcell a solid season again.

Merrill feels that despite its 3-27 mark, baseball is in good hands with head coach Anthony Perry and will progress.

“I think baseball will turn the corner,” Merrill said. “The result wasn’t great, but I know we’re going to turn the corner. The culture has been different.”

One thing Merrill is proud of is the fact that softball talent Nicole Peacock was nominated as the GNAC and also the NCAA Division III Woman of the Year.

Peacock this spring was a First Team All-Conference in softball, where she hit .467 with three homers and 27 RBIs. Peacock was also the GNAC Player of the Year in volleyball, and had a historic career at Rivier.

“She’s been exceptional,” Merrill said. “We won’t find out for a couple of months, it will be tough to win it nationally but she has a good chance for the conference. She does a lot of other things and works with Special Olympics.”

One tough moment Merrill regrets is the end to the successful women’s lacrosse season. The Raiders made it to the GNAC semis for the first time ever, but also were in the ECAC semifinals, losing 24-3 to Curry mainly because several seniors had to miss the game due to pre-graduation ceremonies. The game, Merrill said, was originally supposed to be on a Wednesday but was moved to a Friday, and the Raiders only had nine players.

“We would’ve beaten them, I think, had we had our full team,” she said. “It was tough for our seniors.”

What’s next? For programs to take the next step, Merrill said, and win more consistently.

“All of us want to say ‘We’re competitive’,” Merrill said. “But we want to win some of those games. That’s the next step for some of these teams. And you win with seniors, I think.

“We’ve got a really great coaching staff. I’m hoping we take the next step and be even more competitive. But give the athletes the best experience, win or lose.”

Two Eagles honored

The Daniel Webster men’s volleyball team placed two on the NECC All-Conference team.

Senior outside hitter Joe Walz of East Longmeadow, Mass., was named to the all-conference first team while middle hitter/middle blocker Joe Vargas of Lawrence, Mass., was named an honorable mention.

This was Walz’s fourth straight all-conference selection, and he retired as the all-time leader in a number of program categories, most notably as the only player to reach 1,000 career kills, finishing with 1,127 overall.

Vargas earned his first all-conference honor, enjoying a break-out season in establishing himself as a top conference offensive threat.