Game Changers

Game Changers

The 1998 Stags had the best record in the nation at 35-2

The 1998 Stags had the best record in the nation at 35-2

Fairfield volleyball won its first MAAC championship 25 years ago, and continues to dominate the conference.

In 1998, when we were beating Alabama, Iowa, and Notre dame, that’s when everybody started to believe that there was a chance for the program to develop into something special.

— — Todd Kress, Head Coach

Twenty-five years ago this November, Fairfield University Volleyball swept Saint Peter’s to win its first MAAC Championship in program history.

What nobody could have known at the time was that Fairfield’s 1997 title victory was the beginning of an unrivaled run of success in the conference: 25 seasons highlighted by a MAAC-record 12 conference titles and NCAA postseason trips, and featuring 311 wins com pared to just 50 losses in league play.

It has been an era of achievement that could not have reasonably been expected two years prior to the ’97 Championship, when then Director of Athletics Gene Doris turned the program over to Todd Kress — a first-time collegiate head coach and, at 27, one of the youngest in all of NCAA Division I Volleyball.

The 1997 Stags won the first MAAC Championship in program histor

The 1997 Stags won the first MAAC Championship in program history

“At that time, the program didn’t have much in terms of scholarships or other resources. To be honest, I couldn’t even tell you what the expectations were,” said Head Coach Kress. “But Gene put a lot of trust in me. There were a few times that I told him I’d found a ‘game changer-type’ player who was interested in Fairfield, and he would find the extra scholarship dollars we needed to get her to campus.”

It wasn’t long before those “game changers” not only lived up to the hype, but exceeded all expectations.

First to join the roster were future Hall of Famers Liz Bower ’00 and Jen McLaughlin ’00, guiding the 1996 squad to a 23-12 record and an appearance in the MAAC Championship match. Though that postseason loss to Siena was a disappointment, it was also the last defeat Fairfield would endure at the hands of a conference foe for nearly five years.

Another trio of all-time greats in 2001 class mates Sara Lein, Machel Craig, and Corrine Carlson entered the mix in 1997 as the Stags went 9-0 in the MAAC and won their first-ever MAAC Championship. The following season included another unbeaten run through the MAAC and also saw Fairfield burst onto the national scene.

The 1998 Stags finished with the best record in the nation at 35-2, knocking off teams from the Big East, SEC, and Big Ten along the way. That club featured future Hall of Famer Joanne Saunders ’02, and the entire 1998 team has since been enshrined as a group into the Fairfield Athletics Hall of Fame.

The 2019 Stags won the final MAAC Championship to be held in Alumni Hall.

The 2019 Stags won the final MAAC Championship to be held in Alumni Hall.

“The focus in those early years was to be a consistent contender for a MAAC Championship. But in 1997, in addition to winning the conference, we also started competing with and beating teams like Hofstra, Providence, and Boston College, that we had never beaten before,” Kress noted. “Then in 1998, when we were beating Alabama, Iowa, and Notre Dame, that’s when everybody started to believe that there was a chance for the program to develop into something special.”

Major changes were afoot before the 1999 season when Kress left to take on the head coaching job at Northern Illinois. But the Stags didn’t miss a beat under new Head Coach Mitch Jacobs, who added key players such as 2000 MAAC Rookie of the Year Kelly Sorensen ’04 and two-time All-MAAC First Teamer Conny Paul ’03. Fairfield ran off two more unbeaten MAAC seasons in 1999 and 2000.

The 2001 Stags would suffer a rare MAAC defeat in the regular season but avenged that loss to Saint Peter’s in the tournament final to extend their streak to a record five straight MAAC Championships and NCAA postseason appearances.

Jacobs left Fairfield to begin a 17-year tenure as the head coach at Marshall University and, in 2002, the Stags’ streak came to an end when Manhattan raised the MAAC Trophy.

That campaign was the start of a championship drought for Fairfield — drought being a relative term, as the Stags won five MAAC regular season titles under Head Coach Jeff “CJ” Werneke and two more coached by Alija Pittenger.

Former Head Coach Alija Pittenger won back-to-back MAAC Championships in 2012 and 2013

Former Head Coach Alija Pittenger won back-to-back MAAC Championships in 2012 and 2013.

But Fairfield ultimately came up short of winning the MAAC Championship and securing an NCAA berth for a solid decade from 2002-11.

“Even the best teams don’t win a championship every year. There’s a level of consistency that is very difficult to maintain for that long,” former Head Coach Pittenger said. “So while it certainly became a sort of stigma around our program during those years, I think looking back, we can be proud of the hard work that those teams put into being a contender.”

In the 2012 season — Pittenger’s fifth — a new generation of Fairfield game changers was ready to take up the mantle as a core comprised of All-MAAC First Team selections Brianna Dixion ’13, Caitlin Stapleton ’15, and 2021 Hall of Famer Rachel Romansky ’14 guided Fairfield back to the MAAC Championship match at Alumni Hall. Fittingly, the opponent was a Siena team that had defeated Fairfield in the conference finals four times during the Stags’ 10-year dry spell — a history lesson not lost on the players and coaches in the home locker room.

 “We tried to hide it, but everybody was feeling the pressure going into that match,” recalled Pittenger. “And I think there were moments of, ‘Oh no, not again!’ when Siena would go on a run, or when things weren’t going our way. But there were also moments where players stepped up and said ‘Not this time!’, and those moments are what made the difference on that day.”

The Stags were back on top and, in true Fairfield Volleyball fashion, they went on to repeat as MAAC Champions in 2013 to make it seven conference titles since that first triumph in 1997. That victory was also Pittenger’s swan song before making her exit from Fairfield, leaving the door open for Kress in 2014 to return to the place where he’d begun his career 19 years earlier.

Fairfield Athletics Hall of Famer Rachel Romansky ’14.

Fairfield Athletics Hall of Famer Rachel Romansky ’14.

The names and the highlights from Kress’s second stint are fresher in the minds of the Fairfield Volleyball faithful. There was the three-peat from 2015-17 with Skyler Day ’18 and Megan Theiller ’18 leading the way, Manuela Nicolini ’20, M’22 rewriting the record books at the setter position to lock up the 2019 title, and the electric debut of KJ Johnson ’23 in the 2021 championship season. All told, the Stags have won five of eight MAAC Championships during Kress’s return, running the grand total to a MAAC best 12 over a span of 25 years.

Now ready for his 13th season as a Stag and 27th as a college head coach in the fall of 2022, Kress embraces the history that he has helped create, and the game changers who have helped Fairfield Volleyball flourish for 25 years and counting.

“I’m humbled and grateful to be a part of it,” reflected Kress. “When you’re in a midmajor league, typically your only path to the NCAA Tournament is to win a conference title, which leaves a very small margin for error. And for Fairfield to have done it 12 times in 25 seasons is a testament to the commitment of the student-athletes and coaches throughout the years, as well as the University and the Athletics Department continuing their support and belief in our program.” 

Other Articles in the Fall 2022 Issue

Letter from the President

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Fairfield Heads to Texas

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Leadership Goals

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A Mindful Approach

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Sean Crosby ’21, MS’22

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Sean and Winnie Atterbury O’Keefe, P’23,’26

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Joan (Barber) and Mitchel Syp ’72, P’01

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