Balanced, veteran Stony Brook the team to beat in America East

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Stony Brook-Leanne Sakowicz-McKyla Brooks
Stony Brook's Leanne Sakowicz sets McKyla Brooks in their match at Nebraska last year

OK, full disclosure: I root for Stony Brook.

For starters, I grew up there, about 45 miles east of New York City on the north shore of Long Island.

Love the place and love the university, which I’m not sure even had a volleyball team back in the day.

And I think the second-year coach, Kristen Belzung, is a rising star in college volleyball.

So far, she’s done pretty well.

The former Northern Iowa setter (2005-08) got everyone’s attention last November when the Seawolves won the America East Tournament to win the league’s NCAA Tournament bid. The down side? Going to Nebraska, where the Huskers made short work of them, 25-10, 25-14, 25-12.

But it was a tremendous way for the team to end a season that saw Stony Brook finish 18-13 overall, 6-6 in the league, before upsetting regular-season winner Albany in the AE tourney semifinals and then Binghamton in the final.

It obviously was a good jumping-off point for 2018, because last Sunday, Stony Brook went on the road to sweep second-place Albany and clinched the AE regular-season title with two matches left.

Now Stony Brook (17-8 overall, 10-0 AE), which has won 13 matches in a row, will be the host for the four-team AE Tournament — and the NCAA bid that goes with it — November 16.

Stony Brook-Kristen Belzung
Stony Brook coach Kristen Belzung

“When we got here a year ago we had a group of players who were willing to buy into a brand-new system and a brand-way of doing things,” Belzung said. “They bought into the defense.

“We made that our emphasis. Then last spring we took a little different emphasis on serving and scoring and now we have a pretty well-rounded team. We’re balanced and we have a couple of players who create a spark of offense for us.”

As with many new coaches, Belzung, a former assistant coach at South Carolina, South Dakota State and Wyoming, inherited her team.

“We’re a veteran group,” Belzung said. “We lost three players from last year. All three of them played, but it’s been an easy transition to plug people into those roles.”

That includes McKyla Brooks, a 5-foot-8 — yes, 5-8 — middle blocker. The senior from Blasdell, N.Y., (near Buffalo) leads the Seawolves in kills (262, 3.01/set) and hitting percentage (.334), and is second in blocks (69, 14 solo). What’s more, she competes in the long jump and is a sprinter for the Stony Brook track and field team.

“She’s just an incredible athlete,” the coach said. “They see her listed at 5-8 on the roster and then they see her play and it’s a totally different thing than you would expect. She’s just so explosive.”

Graduate-student Emily Costello, a 6-2 outside from upstate Webster, has 243 kills (2.83/set), and is a primary passer, second on the team in digs (3.03/set) only to sophomore libero Kiani Kerstetter (4.13 digs/set), a product of Cardiff, Calif.

“Emily’s our glue,” Belzung said. “She’s the kid who does it all. She passes, she defends, she scores. She’s the kid who keeps us together because she plays the entire game of volleyball.”

Other than setter LeAnne Sakowicz, who runs a 5-1, Costello is Stony Brook’s only six-rotation player.

Speaking of Sakowicz, she’s a 5-10 junior from the Chicago suburb of Wauconda who has been the AE setter of the week seven times this season.

“She was not a setter, really, when we got here,” Belzung said. “She had been a backup setter and we got here and didn’t have a setter on the roster. The other one transferred. So we told her she was going to set and she was super-excited about it and she has worked her tail off. You talk about a kid who eats, sleeps, breathes volleyball, she wants to do everything she possibly can to be the best setter she can be. She’s a lot of fun to coach.”

Maria Poole, a 6-2 outside from Norway, is averaging 2.34 kills and Kendra Harlow, the local kid, is averaging 1.62 kills. Harlow is a 6-1 middle from nearby St. James, N.Y., who leads the team with 70 blocks, 12 solo.

“People are so worried about (Brooks) that I think that when she goes to the back row and they get to take a breather and this kid comes from out of nowhere,” Belzung said.

Sabrina Patriciello, a freshman DS from Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., leads with 24 aces and averages 2.05 digs.

Stony Brook finishes the regular season with matches at UMBC on Friday and Binghamton on Sunday. Stony Brook, with an NCAA RPI of 107, has to win the AE title to get the NCAA bid.

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