In 32nd straight NCAA tournament, volleyball seeks a return to the top

| Associate Editor

Playing deep into November is nothing new for Washington University’s volleyball team. When the Bears got formal confirmation that they would be in the field of 64 for the 2018 NCAA tournament, it was the 32nd consecutive year they received that news.

Julianne Malek goes up to attempt a kill against Millikin Oct. 27. The Bears begin the NCAA tournament Friday against Cornell College, and will try to win the program’s 11th national title. Isabella Neubauer | Student Life

Julianne Malek goes up to attempt a kill against Millikin Oct. 27. The Bears begin the NCAA tournament Friday against Cornell College, and will try to win the program’s 11th national title.

Wash. U. is as traditional a powerhouse as you can get in Division III volleyball: In those 32 straight trips to the national tournament, they have won it all 10 times, including in a 40-0 season in 1992. But Wash. U. has not quite achieved its own lofty standards over the past decade. The Bears have not captured a championship since 2009, a long spell by their standards. Head coach Vanessa Walby is also still searching for her first championship, after coming just short with a loss to Calvin College in the 2016 title game.

If the 2018 Bears want to add that elusive 11th championship, most of the keys will come from a core of players that were on the 2016 roster that made a surprise run to the final after an up-and-down season.

On the offensive side, the Bears will look to senior hitters Ifeoma Ufondu and Julianne Malek to put points on the board. Both veteran players surpassed 1,000 career kills over the course of the season and Malek has been a machine in terms of offensive efficiency this season, leading the whole of Division III with a .438 hitting percentage. If Wash. U. is to do damage in the tournament, Ufondu and Malek will be the wrecking crew.

Meanwhile on the defensive side of things, after being the rookie on the 2016 team now junior Zoe Baxter has become one of the most consistent defensive presence in the program’s history. Baxter has racked up the fourth-most digs in Wash. U. history so far in her three-year career. Plus she has consistently stepped it up for the playoffs, and has two of the top four highest individual single-game dig totals in the Wash. U. record books.

With the talent and the experience on the roster, and a respectable No. 13 ranking, the Bears can reasonably hope to make a significant run in the playoffs. The first step will be this weekend in Chicago, with a first round matchup against Cornell College.

The Rams are not exactly a pushover in the first round. They are fresh off the momentum of capturing a Midwest Conference title and in their only matchup with with a ranked team this year took Illinois Wesleyan University to five sets.

Should they make it past the first round, the Bears will face the winner of Illinois Wesleyan and California Lutheran University. The winner of that match advances to the third round Sunday, with the most likely opponent being the region’s top seed, the University of Chicago.

The ultimate goal for the Bears will be to survive the weekend and make their way to the A.J. Palumbo Center in Pittsburgh, where the remaining eight teams will vie for a spot in the national title game Nov. 17.

While Wash. U. will certainly hope to be on the court in Pittsburgh next Saturday, but to add another chapter to the program’s storied history, the opening words will have to be written this weekend in Chicago.