The Lehman College men’s volleyball team had revenge on its mind heading into the City University of New York Athletic Conference tournament last week.
You see, the Lightning’s two league losses to close out the CUNYAC regular season had come against Brooklyn College and Hunter. And, as it turned out, those two very same programs would be the first two opponents Lehman would face in the tournament.
So out to Brooklyn the Lightning trekked for the quarterfinals, and after losing the opening set 25-22, Lehman responded by taking the next three sets 25-21, 25-20 and 25-14. With the victory the Lightning was off to the semifinals for the second straight season.
Confidence was high after upending Brooklyn on its home court. But with a chance to advance for the finals for the first time in more than a decade, the Lightning could not pull off the victory over two-time defending champion Hunter, losing in straight sets 25-16, 25-18, 26-24, to end their season.
It was not the way the Lightning and second-year coach Sovanny Ebbesen hoped their season would end.
“We’re just trying to build something here, and we’re getting the foundation in,” Ebbesen said. “We hoped for a little bit more this year, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be this time.”
Lehman’s trip out to Brooklyn College was certainly worth the traffic battle getting there as the Lightning avenged a loss to the Bulldogs two weeks earlier to earn their trip to the semifinals. Yaw Eshun recorded 20 kills, Jose Bautista added 19 digs, and George Montilla logged 45 assists in the win — one that had Montilla and the Lightning feeling optimistic going into their battle with heavily favored Hunter.
“We’re going to try and take them down and get that ring,” Montilla said.
But Hunter showed why it has now won three straight CUNYAC titles, posting the straight-set victory to end Lehman’s season. Hunter then went on to defeat Baruch in the finals for its three-peat.
“We just made too many errors,” Ebbesen said. “It was inexperience.”
Yes, the Lightning are a rather young outfit, one that sometimes saw two freshmen and two sophomores on the court at different times. But while that youthful inexperience may have cost Lehman a shot at the title this year, it certainly bodes well for next season as the Lightning returns every player with the exception of Bautista, a senior.
“This program can only go up from here,” Montilla said.
The Lightning had to overcome the loss of junior Roberto Ventura Diaz, who left the team for personal reasons late in the season. It was a tough blow for the young team so close to tournament time.
“That’s one of the challenges we had to overcome, and we were able to adapt and players became leaders instead of followers,” Ebbesen said. “And they were able to take on new responsibilities.”
Ebbesen also scheduled a rather rugged non-conference schedule for the Lightning this season, one which saw Lehman face three top-10 nationally ranked teams, including No. 1 Springfield. It’s a practice she’ll continue to do in future seasons building Lehman into a title contender.
And that day is not far away.
“Lehman, John Jay, Hunter, Baruch and Brooklyn — we all challenged each other this year and that had not happened in the past,” Ebbesen said. “Typically Hunter or Baruch would wipe the floor with one of us. But all of us, we all took sets off each other this season. So I think we’re definitely closing the gap on Hunter and Baruch, and I would say that’s because we are branching out of our league with our schedule, which is good.
“I think we’re going to close the gap even more going forward.”
It was a challenging season for Ebbesen and the Lightning, from losing Ventura Diaz to playing their final 13 games on the road, to taking on some of the best programs Division III has to offer in the regular season. But it all ended with a very respectable trip to the CUNYAC semifinals before losing to eventual champion Hunter.
All-in-all, a memorable season for Lehman.
“This was one of my funnest seasons because we had a lot of challenges,” Ebbesen said, “and we overcame them.”