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A volleyball powerhouse sustains in Brooklyn

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Kyle Robinson knew it wasn’t going to be easy. When he took the women’s volleyball coaching job at Long Island University in August, he was inheriting a program that had won four straight Northeast Conference tournament titles and went 32-1 in league play during that span.

The Blackbirds were sure used to winning under former coach Toby Rens, who departed to take the head coaching position at the University of Pittsburgh. But they weren’t used to Robinson. So, the former U.S. National Team member gathered his new team together for a meeting. The response he got didn’t surprise him.

“I don’t think we had one person say we’re doing anything but winning a championsh­ip,” said Robinson, who played at LIU-Southampton and is a former assistant at Air Force.

And three months later, that’s exactly what LIU did. With a 25-21, 25-15, 25-19, victory against St. Francis (Pa.) on Sunday, the Blackbirds brought a fifth straight NEC tournament title back to Brooklyn. They will find out Sunday who they play in a fifth consecutive NCAA tournament.

Unlike most of the previous four seasons, Long Island wasn’t quite the favorite to win it all in 2008. The Blackbirds were picked to finish second in the NEC in the preseason coaches’ poll. The loss of outstanding seniors Shelby Heggie and Martina Wagner and Hens will do that. To make matters worse, junior setter Dunja Milin was injured in the preseason and freshman Chelsea Stanton had to step in.

But LIU overcame all of that relatively easily. The Blackbirds had strong leadership from the upperclassmen, Robinson said, got a great season from NEC tournament MVP Martina Racic and just knew how to win. Fifth-year senior Jasmine Perez, who has been a part of every single NCAA tournament squad, said winning has just become a habit.

“It’s almost something I expected to happen after my first year,” said Perez, who missed the 2005 season due to injury.

Racic and junior Svetlana Simic both were named to the All-Northeast Conference first team, but Robinson downplays those kinds of honors.

“If I could have voted, I would have voted all my team that,” the coach said. “We really did it as a full unit this year.”

Simic was the conference’s best libero last year, but switched to outside hitter and was excellent. Stanton averaged a solid 9.29 assists per set. Perez, a defensive specialist whom Robinson calls “overqualif­ied” for her position, averaged 3.92 digs per set. Aside from the statistics, the coach likes to use the word “heart” to describe how his team was able to gut out another NEC title.

He’s not ready to pack it in, either. Robinson would love to see LIU play spoiler in the NCAA tournament next week.

“We didn’t get here on a fluke,” he said. “We’re not just gonna be a pushover team. … We’re not just happy we got to the tournament. That was our goal from the start.”

Perhaps, Robinson’s integration as coach was so easy due to his background in volleyball. Playing with the National Team can hold a lot of weight and he regularly practiced with the Blackbirds this season.

“When you see him play, he makes you want to play even harder,” Perez said. “Most of the time when he hits, we all just jump out of the way.”

The rest of the conference didn’t jump out of the way for LIU this season. The Blackbirds (19-11, 7-1 NEC) had to earn every victory. When Perez first arrived in Brooklyn from her native Texas, Long Island didn’t have much of a volleyball pedigree. But a few years later, with her help, that has all changed.

“We’re trying to make LIU a name,” Perez said.

So far, that goal – like most others the Blackbirds have set – has been successful.


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