Sep. 23—NEW LONDON — Olivia DeLoach, the reigning New England Collegiate Conference Player of the Week, isn't your protypical outside hitter. She is 5-foot-5, recruited to the Mitchell College volleyball team as a libero.
DeLoach came to Mitchell from Spring Hill, Florida, yearning for a change of scenery, and has seen just about everything, including three different coaches for the Mariners.
Last year's team was 6-16. This time around, Mitchell is 6-4 under first-year coach Tony Nocera, despite a 3-1 loss Thursday night against Nichols (16-25, 25-22, 25-21, 27-25), one of several nonleague opponents readying the Mariners for NECC play, which begins in mid-October.
"I came on my visit," DeLoach, an all-conference first team selection last year, was explaining Thursday night, "and Mitchell as a school was just really into the whole community, being close. The coaches were super close. Even from different sports teams, all the athletes were really just like a tiny community within the community. So I really liked that aspect."
Molly Steel-Miller is a junior on the roster and in just her second season. Steel-Miller is from Salem, Oregon, and was headed across the country to play at Northern Vermont University. When that didn't work out, she remained in the neighborhood, so to speak, in New England, at Mitchell.
"I didn't get a recruiting visit or anything like that," Steel-Miller said. "I got a tour of the gym. Something about the family I saw, that I heard, it was just enough to be, like, 'Give me the papers, let me sign.'"
The players credit Nocera for working so diligently in his first season, adapting to their player profiles, as well as their personality quirks. Nocera was a physical education teacher and head girls' volleyball coach at New Milford High School.
"There's been such a huge change and that comes from him and his positivity," Steel-Miller said. "It's always scary to have a new coach. I think we were all nervous, shaking in our boots."
In addition to Nocera, DeLoach said there has been an additional note of positivity stemming from the members of the team. There are six seniors who have been through coaching changes and a lost season due to COVID in 2020. Their attitude this year is to have fun with it.
"I feel like this year, we kind of took a step back over the summer and really kind of communicated to each other, 'Whatever it is we do, let's have fun,'" DeLoach said. "The word of the year is 'fun.'"
Mitchell stormed out to a 25-16 victory in Game 1 against Nichols. The next three games all went to Nichols, but each one hung in the balance. That included Game 3, in which Mitchell trailed 11-4 and came back to tie things 12-12 on a kill across the court from DeLoach on the left side.
Steel-Miller led the way with nine kills, hitting at a .429 clip. Claire Binfield had 24 assists, while Julia Lent had 15 digs and DeLoach had 13 digs, eight kills and four assists.
Jayleen Fegan had 14 kills for Nichols (10-3).
"It was definitely disappointing to lose that match, but we did a lot of things for the long run that we've been trying to get them to do," Nocera said. "Even from the last match, the last match we served kind of tentatively; today we served super aggressive. They're learning from their previous mistakes.
"We don't play conference games for two more weeks. That's how we approached the whole season. We want to play our best volleyball when we get to NECCs."