Deja vu all over again: Volleyball takes on familiar foe in NCAA first round

Jon Lewis | Senior Sports Editor

At this point, the 2017 Washington University volleyball Bears are probably sick of hearing about their 2016 counterparts. After Wash. U. made a surprise run to the 2016 national final, expectations were high for this year’s team. Then, the Bears struggled in the early season before picking up a few big wins against ranked teams, just like they did the year before. And now, to complete the cycle, Wash. U. will begin its NCAA campaign against the same team that ended its national title hopes a year ago—Calvin College.

Chloe Stile sets the ball in the Bears 3-1 victory against Chicago in the UAA Championships last year. Skyler Kessler | Student Life

Chloe Stile sets the ball in the Bears 3-1 victory against Chicago in the UAA Championships last year.

The Knights are an imposing first round opponent. Calvin ran the table in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association with a perfect 16-0 mark in the conference and a 26-3 record overall. The Knights are ninth in Division III with 13.57 kills per set and second in the division in hitting percentage, converting on 28 percent of their attacks. They are the second seed in the tournament and haven’t lost a set since October 14.

While the Knights have featured one of the most efficient offenses in the nation this season, in last years’ final, it was their defense that propelled them over the Bears. While Calvin only registered two blocks in the contest, they used their height up front to challenge Wash. U.’s attacks, making difficult angles for the Bears’ star hitters. In the 2016 final, then-sophomore middle hitter Julianne Malek only converted on six of her 18 attacks and committed three errors along the way. The Wash. U. offense in general could not find a way to get quality looks against the Calvin defensive line, and lost in three sets with a hitting percentage of just .193.

Malek, along with fellow junior Ifeoma Ufondu and sophomore Leila King, has been the key for the Bears’ attack this season. Malek has posted a career high in kills this season with 336 and has passed that mark in 67 fewer attacks than she registered last year. Malek was named UAA Most Valuable Player for her efforts in Wash. U.’s conference title run.

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 2.06.56 AMGraphic by Noa Yadidi

Ufondu, an outside hitter, has been the Bears biggest offensive weapon by volume. She has racked up a team-high 366 kills this season, averaging around three per set. In her sophomore season, King has joined Malek in the middle and racked up the third-highest kills total on the team and, at six feet tall, has been able to use her height to become the anchor of the Bears’ defensive frontline. Her 21 blocks are the most on the team, and she has been good for around one in every set she’s played.

If Wash. U. is to get revenge on the second-ranked team in the nation, they will need to find quality looks for their hitters who were stifled a year ago, and that task will largely fall to the combination of sophomore Chloe Stile and freshman Kirby Knapp.

In her rookie season, Knapp has become the primary setter for the Bears, registering 527 total assists. Largely though, the pace of the offense has been set by a combination of newcomer Knapp and veteran Stile. While Knapp started in the UAA championship match against Emory, Stile was used off the bench early and often by head coach Vanessa Walby; and the two setters finished with nearly the same number of assists—20 for Knapp and 19 for Stile.

While Wash. U. maybe was hoping to get another shot at Calvin, they probably did not want to play them off the bat. However, the bracket does not get much easier from there. If the Bears do manage to knock off the Knights, they will more than likely face off against Millikin University in the second round. The Big Blue are currently ranked 11th to Wash. U.’s 13th and beat the Bears at Francis Fieldhouse when they played last month.

The odds certainly seem stacked against the Bears. However, they are no strangers to the position they find themselves in now. The 2016 run came seemingly out of thin air; and though they may be sick of the comparison, the Bears will have to conjure a little of that magic if they want to finally step out of the shadow of the last year’s national final.