Volleyball earns 22nd UAA title, secures NCAA tournament berth with wins over Chicago, Emory
Wednesday night, the Washington University women’s volleyball team had dinner with former Bears head coach Teri Clemens.
Just a week earlier, Wash. U. had been one of the hottest teams in Division III, having won 10 straight contests. But the Red and Green had lived up to their name: The tides turned quickly when a loss to DePauw University not only ended the streak, but leaked into three straight losses.
With the UAA Championships right around the corner, the Bears needed to get their act together. A win against Greenville University helped, but it was meeting with Clemens, who served 14 years at the helm, totaling seven national championships and a 136-1 conference record, that sparked their best weekend of the year.
“She really got us fired up,” sophomore setter Chloe Stile said. “She told us that we could crush everyone in the UAA and that’s what she expected of us. But it also didn’t matter what the scoreboard said but how we felt after the game and knowing that we gave it our all. I think that really inspired a lot of us.”
Current head coach Vanessa Walby saw the same effects.
“I think spending time with Teri was helpful,” Walby said. “I think the underclassmen are still trying to learn the history and traditions that is Bear volleyball. Seeing it firsthand for all of the girls was very special. Teri built what we have here and it is special and awesome to be a part of.”
The Bears proceeded to sweep the UAA Championships, with commanding wins over New York University, No. 20 University of Chicago and No. 7 Emory University to clinch their 22nd conference title this weekend in the Woodruff P.E. Center in Atlanta.
During the three-game losing streak, the team’s cohesion wasn’t the same as it had been during most of the regular season. After meeting with Clemens and defeating Greenville, the team made adjustments—but they weren’t tactical changes, according to Stile.
“A lot of it was that we really came together as a team over the weekend,” Stile said. “During those three games at the end of the season, we were playing more like individuals…It was mostly mental; it wasn’t so much physical adjustments.”
Walby saw the same effects, citing that the team “regrouped” as everyone was given a “clean slate” after the three games heading into the UAA conference tournament.
The team set the tone with a 3-0 beatdown of NYU in its opening match. After winning the first set 25-13, the Bears held on for a tight 25-21 victory in the second set. Demoralized, New York’s energy was zapped and the Bears took advantage, closing with a powerful 25-9 set to complete the sweep.
Wash. U. finished with 47 kills to NYU’s 29, while posting a hitting percentage of 38. Junior middle hitter Julianne Malek and freshman outside hitter Tricia Brown tied for a team-high 10 kills, while freshman setter Kirby Knapp had a team-high 24 assists and sophomore defensive specialist Zoe Baxter totaled a team-high 12 digs.
The Bears fed off that momentum to knock off Chicago in three sets. Once again, the Bears totaled more kills, hitting 50 to Chicago’s 37. It was junior outside hitter Ifeoma Ufondu who led the way, notching 20 kills, tying her highest mark all year, on a 41 hitting percentage. Stile had a team-high 22 assists while Baxter and the team’s lone senior, defensive specialist Lauren Fournier, had a team-high 13 digs.
Once again, Wash. U. found itself in the championship match with Emory. Historically, that’s par for the course—11 of the last 14 times and the six most recent times the Red and Green have seized the UAA title, it’s been against the Eagles.
The Bears fought to win a tight 25-23 first set, but lost their first set of the weekend, 25-17, in the next. The Bears showed resiliency, winning back-to-back sets 25-16 and 25-17, respectively, to close the deal and capture the title.
Malek again led the team in kills with 14 and a hitting percentage of 54. Knapp totaled 20 assists while Baxter had 21 digs.
“I would prefer to say as a team it was a great team weekend,” Walby said. “That was our emphasis.”
The Bears now have a guaranteed spot in the NCAA Tournament, but will have to wait until Monday’s Selection Show to see where they’re placed. They will have a viewing show as a team when the results come out at 11:30 a.m.
“I am really excited that we have the automatic qualifier,” Walby said. “That takes a lot of stress off. Now we wait to see if we host or are traveling.”
The Bears will try to replicate their run last year and make it back to the NCAA Championship, channeling a little Teri Clemens, just as they did this weekend.