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Two losses? No problem, as Lehman prepares for tourney

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When you watch a Lehman College men’s volleyball match these days, you’re watching more than a game. It’s more like an event. Or entertainment. Maybe a combination of all three.

There’s head coach Sovanny Ebbesen breaking into her dance moves on the sidelines with her players after a long rally produces a tough point. 

There’s Roberto Ventura Diaz dancing by the net after making a critical play. Other times, dancing just because. 

There’s George Montilla picking up floor burns after another day of throwing his body on the ground to pick up yet another assist. An effort last Saturday at John Jay had even opposing players from Baruch College applauding him from the stands.

And then there’s Jose Bautista, the lone senior on the team, yelling — all the time. Sometimes in English, other times in Spanish. Not exactly sure what he’s saying half the time, but it seems to rally the Lightning more often than not.

All of it was on display last Saturday during a tri-meet at John Jay College in Manhattan. Lehman went into the match an unbeaten 3-0 in the City University of New York Athletic Conference. Two leave-everything-on-the-court matches resulted in a pair of losses for the Lightning, yet they were still smiling and dancing afterward.

That’s because Lehman is looking at the big picture, the CUNYAC tournament, set to tip off April 10. And the team that barely went down last Saturday feels strongly it will not be that team come tournament time.

“We’ve had a hard schedule this year, and I think that is going to help us,” said North Pole, Alaska native Ebbesen. “They get to play and compete against these top teams, so they are improving fast.”

Ebbesen is not exaggerating when she talks about her schedule-on-steroids. Her Lightning already have played a pair of programs currently ranked in the top five nationally in Division III — Kean University and Stevens Institute of Technology, both in New Jersey — with another matchup coming later this month against the premier program in the country — Springfield. 

It’s all with an eye toward being battle-tested come tournament time.

“We took a set off of Kean,” Ebbesen said. “We’re the only team that has taken a set off of them in the last 25 sets they’ve played. We’re competing against some of the best.” 

Stepping up in weight class schedule-wise is a way for Ebbesen to get her young team old in a hurry. And with a program that now has several freshmen among its key players, what better way to get experience than to play the very best? 

“That game against Kean, fifth in the nation and we took a set from them, that was pretty good,” said junior George Montilla, who logged 48 assists in last Saturday’s action. “And I think that’s what the guys needed. We needed that kind of experience. We didn’t get the wins that we wanted, but it was a great experience.”

In last Saturday’s first match against Baruch — the team that ended Lehman’s season last year in the semifinals of the CUNYAC tournament — the Lightning extended the Bearcats to four sets before losing 25-19, 25-23, 19-25 and 25-22. Ventura Diaz logged a double-double in the contest with 18 points and 14 digs, while Bautista added a team-best 16 digs and Yaw Eshun chipping in with 14. 

But while Lehman was pleased with pushing one of the top teams in the CUNYAC to the limit, they were not as content with their performance against John Jay. The Lightning held a 23-20 lead in the first set before losing 25-23. They held an even larger 18-10 advantage in the third set before dropping that one, 27-25, and losing in five sets. 

It was the one that got away, and Ebbesen knew it.

“Baruch is a tough team and we played them toe-to-toe,” Ebbesen said. “But against John Jay, I would say we gave away that game. We had a huge lead in the third, and it was just young guys making young mistakes.”

Lehman still has a month to go before the CUNYAC tournament, but just three conference games remaining versus Brooklyn, York and Hunter. But Montilla vows Lehman will do some damage.

“Our schedule is so tough so we’re definitely going to have played some very good competition before the CUNYAC tournament starts,” Montilla said. 

And until then, Ebbesen and her players will look to continue to improve — and dance.

“I wouldn’t run my team any other way,” Ebbesen said, laughing.

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