Albany shakes off 0-12 sinking feeling, riding high in America East

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Albany's Akubata Okenwa/Bill Ziskin photo

Someday, the 2017 Albany volleyball roster will get together again and have a good laugh about the start to their season.

How does 50 years sound?

It might take a generation or three to get the distance needed to reflect back with a smile on the nearly four-week blender through which the program suffered. The 0-12 start in four tournaments saw the Great Danes win just three sets, and it doesn’t take much imagination to say the mood in the locker room at times was a bit bleak.

But Albany and coach MJ Engstrom sifted through the wreckage and built something durable for the second half of the campaign. The team now sits at 10-1 in the America East Conference, clinching the top seed in next week’s tournament that will determine the AE automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with one regular-season match to go, Friday at Stony Brook.

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Albany coach MJ Engstrom

Engstrom agreed that just about every resource in her coaching capacity was called upon to steer the team –- with seven freshmen and four sophomores -– past the hurt feelings and dark moods of August and September.

“I like to schedule tough in the beginning and challenge our players; obviously I misjudged where we were emotionally, more than anything. That’s what we talked about, coming into practice and not thinking they had failed, in any sense,” said Engstrom, who has been at the helm for 10 years, sent the team to three NCAA tournaments and has been conference coach of the year three times.

“This was a learning experience and everything we did playing against bigger teams, tougher teams, better teams … in the end it would help us.

“I’m not sure exactly they believed us. We did some things and talked about the history of the program, where the alumni had been and why we recruited them … I’ll be honest, there was a week where we didn’t allow them to wear Albany gear. We said, we don’t care about the losses; it’s the fact you aren’t learning from your mistakes. The people who built this program, that’s one thing they did. Until you feel you are worthy of that, you’re not wearing the Albany stuff. After three days, they said, yeah, we think we deserve it, and we haven’t lost since.”

Those four tournaments actually started off fine; losses to national powers Michigan and USC still saw the Great Danes playing with tenacity and responding to the physical challenge with superior desire. But quickly from there, the downward spiral grabbed Albany’s spirits –- the team was still trying to find a leadership core after the graduation of three powerful voices from 2016, and the perfectionist streak that ran deep through the roster became more of a drag as players struggled to understand why they weren’t playing up to their own standards.

Along the way, the skills of the young lineup began to emerge, just as the coaching staff had predicted. The team leader in kills is a redshirt sophomore, Akubata Okenwa, with a freshman and sophomore taking the next two spots on the leader board. Sophomore setter Kelly Cameron leads the way there with 605 assists; freshman middle and New York native Danielle Tedesco has the best hitting percentage and also paces Albany in blocks.

“We’ve still got some setter competition going on, which is fine; our middle (Tedesco) is a freshman who didn’t play high-level club. She’s a three-sport athlete, and we knew she’d eventually be pretty good,” Engstrom said. “We needed to play her. It would have been ideal to redshirt her, but she’s learning on the job. Fortunately, her emotional makeup has allowed her to handle the bumps along the way, and she’s learning a lot faster than a lot of kids in her position would.

“We are teaching them to be resilient and use more positive self-talk. When something bad happens, you have the ability to change your reaction. We work on these things every day.”

There’s a chance some upbeat thinking will come in handy in the AE tournament, should Albany come across New Hampshire along the way. The Wildcats have topped Albany in the past three tourney title games, and in fact handed Albany its only league loss in 2017, a five-setter on the Great Danes’ floor.

On the plus side, Albany swept New Hampshire on the road in early October, and the Wildcats have four league losses, so there’s reason to be confident. Engstrom really doesn’t sweat it, as the competitive challenge of New Hampshire is something she values.

“New Hampshire is extremely well-coached, and the staff is the most stable across the board in conference. Jill (Hirschinger, who has been there 21 years) has an immense knowledge of the game, and if something isn’t working, the next time you play her it will change,” Engstrom said. “We test each other, make each other better; we wouldn’t be as good without playing them and vice versa. We show each other what our weaknesses are. It’s a great rivalry, and it’s always a pretty good match.

“One thing we try to keep student-athletes focused on is being in the moment. It’s not so much who we are playing against, as opposed to what their vulnerabilities are and what we can do to expose that. Whatever color shirt they wear across the net, I want them to remain in the moment.”

Happy ending or not for Albany, the question lingers if Engstrom will again schedule her team to face wicked-tough competition at the start of 2018. Spoiler alert: old habits die hard.

“I do know we’ll go to Michigan State, so we already have a pretty tough tournament there. For me, I’m not into wins and losses; I’m in it to teach our players the game and how to deal with adversity, stretching what they can do and make sure they understand that if they focus, they can attain those goals,” Engstrom added.

“It was the first time in my career I was 0-12, but if we were to go back in time to how we are now, I think it would be a little different. Am I going to schedule a little less tough? I don’t think so.”

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