The Mack Report

The Power’s In Their Hands

Volleyball

NORTH ANDOVER – Most times perception is reality, and after finishing in last place the previous two seasons, Merrimack College was once again picked to finish near the bottom of the Northeast-10 this fall. But after an eye-opening run to the Northeast-10 championship game two weeks ago, the Warriors proved that there’s always an exception.

“We knew what other teams thought of us,” said Merrimack head coach T.J. Hajjar, whose team finished a combined 15-42 the previous two seasons. “We knew that we needed to earn respect and these girls worked every single day to earn that. We knew what people thought of us but we also knew what we thought of us, and we were pretty excited for this season. We knew in the spring when we started competing that we had a lot of talent, we were just young.”

The Warriors finished this past fall 17-15, bettering their win total from the past two seasons combined. They closed the season with a 9-2 run en route to the NE-10 finals against undefeated (in the NE-10) New Haven, which hasn’t lost a conference match in over two years.

The Warriors were picked 12th in the preseason poll and qualified for the NE-10 playoffs for the first time since 2009.

In the finals, the Warriors were the only NE-10 team all season to even force a fifth set with the Chargers before falling, 3-2.

“The week after, I kept getting text messages all week from the girls excited about next season,” said Hajjar, who will return every player but one to next fall’s squad. “Getting so close definitely has made them want it more. I knew that they were dedicated just based on the work we were doing throughout the course of the year, and how they practiced and played, but if it’s possible, this will take it up a notch even more.”

Hajjar’s message to the Warriors was simple: they controlled their own destiny.

Whether it was out on the floor in practice or one-on-one against an opponent, the Warriors dictated the results, and it started with a unique practice philosophy.

“We would run drills in practice where they determined when it was done,” Hajjar said. “They would give us how long they would think it would take to get through a drill, and if they didn’t hit that time, they’d run suicides. There was one practice this year where I believe we ran 113 suicides. But, I know that it made them better and they would tell you that it made them better.”

The Warriors were without question the most conditioned team in the conference, if not the region.

“Definitely,” Hajjar said. “These girls are in tremendous shape and it’s noticeable when they’re out there. We run a lot of volleyball conditioning drills over the summer and in our practices which not only helps condition the girls but also helps with refining skills.”

Already an aggressive recruiter — the Warriors 15-woman roster features players from six states, including California, Virginia and Colorado — the 2013 breakout season has opened some new recruiting pipelines for Hajjar and assistant coach Greg Stanton.

“We’re definitely getting calls we weren’t getting before,” Hajjar said. “We’ve always been pretty spread out about where we get players from, but we’ve also definitely noticed that we’re getting more emails and more phone calls from schools and coaches we’ve never heard from before, so this year I think has opened some eyes to people and people are starting to recognize that this is not only a great school, but a great school to come play volleyball.”

And even with a stellar season just recently in the rearview mirror, Hajjar isn’t looking anywhere but up.

“We’re obviously excited about the season we had,” he said, “but we still want to win an NE-10 title. The goals haven’t changed.”

Fantastic Fall

Merrimack’s volleyball program was one of several highlights over the course of the fall season.

The field hockey team (14-6) returned to the NCAA Final Four for the third consecutive season after beating Stonehill in the first round of the NCAA tournament, avenging a loss to the Skyhawks in the NE-10 semifinals. Women’s soccer continued an impressive streak of seasons with an above .500 record, finishing the year 10-6-2 and qualifying for the NE-10 playoffs and the men’s soccer team (13-4-2) advanced to the NE-10 finals against SNHU, falling 1-0 and then being one of the last teams left out of the NCAA tournament, despite ranking high enough to qualify the week before and only suffering a loss to the top-seeded team.

Merrimack’s women’s cross country team finished ninth in the nation in Division 2 after qualifying for its first ever NCAA Championships and the golf team finished its fall season with a pair of third-place finishes (they’ll pick things back up in the spring. Football (7-4) beat Division 1 Wagner to open the year and once again put up stellar offensive numbers, including quarterback Joe Clancy throwing for 4,116 yards and 48 touchdowns.