Fairfield University middle blocker Megan O’Sullivan enjoys a perk no other player on her team does.
That’s because only seniors get to live off campus on Fairfield Beach. And O’Sullivan is the only senior on the Connecticut school.
“The beach is a mile-and-a-half away from campus,” says O’Sullivan, who is from Phoenix. “I’m from the West Coast originally and I love the East Coast. I love being so close to the beach and so close to New York City.”
And as far as the Stags go this season, life has been pretty much a beach as well.
Fairfield , which has won 12 in a row, goes into matches Saturday at Iona and Sunday at Manhattan 18-5 overall and 11-0 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Fairfield has now won 22 matches in a row against MAAC competition (including postseason), which is the sixth-longest active winning streak by a team against its conference foes in all of NCAA Division I.
Not too shabby for a team that still trends on the youthful side. O’Sullivan is part of a Stags roster that features 11 players who are either sophomores or freshmen.
“Being the only senior isn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” O’Sullivan says with a chuckle. “I went into this season having a senior mentality that this is my last round and my last go of it. The great thing is everybody has been on the same page and everybody has that go-go-go mentality and that makes being a senior easy and enjoyable.”
What’s been enjoyable for Stags coach Todd Kress is watching his group continue to blossom. Kress is on his second tour of duty at Fairfield. He originally coached the Stags from 1995 to 1998 and then went on to make stops at Northern Illinois, Florida State and Buffalo before returning to Connecticut in 2014.
Last year, he led one of the youngest teams in Division I (no seniors and 12 combined freshmen and sophomores) to the MAAC title and a trip to the NCAA tournament where it lost to perennial power and eventual 2015 national runner-up Texas in the first round.
“The experience the girls gained last year has been a big piece to the puzzle,” he says. “We brought that experience to the table this year and it has benefited us going forward. The other piece of the puzzle is the girls take care of each other. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and you have to care for each other on and off the court. You can have all the talent you want, but if you don’t have that, you aren’t going to be successful.”
Kress admits last year’s run did come as a bit of a surprise given the nascent roster.
“We expected to compete in conference, but we thought we’d be more of a second-half team,” he says. “We threw a lot at the group and it took a little bit to find that foundation. We got our feet under us and found ways to win. When they figured it out, I pulled myself out of the equation and let them run with it. And they did.”
This season, Fairfield has battled through some adversity with the loss of sophomore contributors Sydney Williams and Oyinkansola Akinola to injury.
“It’s been next woman up for us,” Kress says. “The people who have come off the bench have done a great job. We haven’t missed a beat. We keep going. We’re out there practicing to win every day.”
In addition to O’Sullivan’s contributions (159 kills and 76 total blocks out of the middle), the Stags also receive constant boosts from six-rotation junior outsides Skyler Day and Megan Theiller. Through Thursday, Day, a 2015 MAAC first-team all-conference choice, was leading with 313 kills and had 164 digs, while Theiller was right behind her with 303 kills and was second on the team in digs with 210 and was the team leader in receptions with 371 (against only 20 errors).
“We realize who we are,” Kress says. “We’re not a huge team. We have to ball-handle and play defense. Megan Theiller and Skyler Day do a great job of point-scoring from the front and back row, passing and playing great defense. They have been the heartbeat of the team and have done a great job leading the way.”
Sophomore defensive specialist Mallory Bechtold is the team leader in digs (4.52 per set), while junior Sydney Buckley and freshman Manuela Nicolini (from Italy) has split setting duties.
“Coming back from last year, we have the same core group that has the same goals in mind,” Theiller says. “When we came back this year we were able to get back on track much quicker. We go into the gym and go at it no matter what our record is. We look at getting better each day. We knew we had a good group coming into the season and we set our goals high. We’ve set a standard and a culture in our gym. It’s a culture that has incorporated the newcomers. Everybody is ready to work so we can keep up with the tradition established here.”
Theiller, the 2015 MAAC tournament MVP, says a key turning point for the group last year was its NCAA match in Austin against the host Longhorns.
“That was an eye-opener,” she says. “It also was a lot of fun to see how much work it took to get there and then we got to go play Texas. When we played them we realized what it takes to get to that level. We have higher goals now.”
O’Sullivan adds: “Playing Texas was awesome. It was a great opportunity. We went down there hoping for the best. We knew it definitely was a long shot, but anything can happen in the NCAA tournament. It’s motivated us even more this season. We want to be in that environment again but we know we have to work even harder if we want move past that first round.”
With the success the program has enjoyed over the years, Theiller, whom O’Sullivan points out already has put in her application to live at the beach next year, says Fairfield can no longer be pigeon-holed in the Cinderella-story category. Opponents are well aware of the Stags and their capabilities, she adds.
“We always talk about the fact teams are gunning for us. We have a target on our back,” she says. “However, we still go in there with that underdog mentality with the mindset to improve each day. Every match we play is an opportunity to get better.”
O’Sullivan says the formula is simple regarding what the Stags must do to continue their reign of prosperity going forward.
“Every time we step on the court it takes every one of us on the team, whether it’s the starters, the girls coming off the bench or the injured players,” she says emphatically. “It takes the whole team to be successful. This is one of my favorite groups I’ve played with. It makes working hard for each other so much easier. We all have the same goal.”
And that goal is to keep the victory party going by the beach.
• O’Sullivan has been selected as a candidate for the 2016 Senior CLASS Award. O’Sullivan is one of 30 NCAA Division I volleyball student-athletes chosen from a nationwide pool. The award focuses on the total student-athlete and encourages students to use their platform in athletics to make a positive impact as leaders in their communities. A nursing major, O’Sullivan was a member of the 2015 MAAC all-academic team.
• Kress, Fairfield’s all-time leader in wins and matches coached, was the youngest coach in NCAA history to each 200 career wins when he attained the milestone as the head coach at Florida State in 2004.
• Fairfield has won eight MAAC titles and has won the conference regular-season crown in 15 of the last 20 years and has reached the MAAC tournament title match 20 years in a row.
• So how did the team get the nickname Stags? According to a Wikipedia posting about the history of the nickname, Stags won out over Chanticleers back in the late 1940s. According to the post, the decision by the school’s board of directors was made easier because the school was part of the Dioceses of Hartford and the word Hartford means stags (hart) and stream (ford). A hart is a male of the European red deer (stag):