Women’s volleyball wins three on tough road trip
The No. 1 Washington University women’s volleyball team packed a season’s worth of adversity, momentum swings and clutch play into one dramatic match. And then they did it again. And a third time for good measure.
In one of the wildest, most on-the-edge-of-your-seat, bad-for-your-blood-pressure weekends imaginable, the No. 1 Bears took three out of four matches in the Wittenberg Fall Classic in Springfield, Ohio.
“That’s probably the most challenging tournament and weekend that we’ve ever experienced,” senior Marilee Fisher said. “It [was] definitely exciting; it [was] definitely a test of teamwork, a test of discipline and focus.”
The team’s first match was a showdown against host Wittenberg University, the current No. 2 and defending national champion. After trading the first four sets, the top two teams entered the decisive fifth.
Three Wash. U. service errors in the final set helped Wittenberg stay close, but ultimately the Bears’ multifaceted attack proved to be the deciding factor, as consecutive kills by freshman Jackie Nelligan and senior Drew Hargrave clinched the match for Wash. U. and handed the opposing Tigers their first loss of the season (24-26, 25-19, 25-22, 18-25, 16-14).
But the Bears’ night was far from over. Less than three hours after Hargrave’s final shot trickled over the net, Wash. U. took the court again to battle another highly ranked team, this time against No. 3 Calvin College. Once again, the evenly matched teams did not disappoint as the teams traded the first four sets.
With the Bears leading 13-10 in the fifth set, Calvin knotted the score with three straight points. From then on, the teams alternated wide-outs, and Wash. U. squandered three match points. At 16-16, finally, just as they did against Wittenberg, Nelligan and Hargrave produced kills on consecutive points to close out the match (22-25, 26-24, 22-25, 25-15, 18-16).
“It was really fun…there were nerves, but there was more excitement than that, and I just wanted to do what I love,” Hargrave said about her winning hits.
Against Calvin, Hargrave (23 kills) and junior Emily Tulloch (17) set career-highs while Fisher contributed with 61 assists, a season-high and one of her career bests.
The next day, the Bears saw a brief reprieve as they comfortably swept No. 21 Heidelberg by scores of 25-20, 26-24, 25-17. In the second set, despite trailing 18-8, the Bears strung together point after point to overcome the slow start and take a commanding two-set lead.
Then it was back to the five-set dramas the Bears had seemingly perfected the night before. No. 7 Hope College turned out to be a tough match for Wash. U., just as head coach Rich Luenemann predicted before the tournament. Coming off of a bad loss to Wittenberg the night before, the Flying Dutch proved that Luenemann’s prognostication was correct as they battled Wash. U. point for point en route to a five-set win (25-23, 18-25, 25-27, 25-20, 17-15).
Wash. U. had its opportunities and twice served for the match but lost when, leading 15-14, a hitting violation caused a side-out, followed by two Hope aces.
“There were a lot of points in all the sets that we could’ve improved upon,” Hargrave said, “but I think that we can learn a lot more from losing a tough match like that than squeaking it out, and we can really evaluate what we need to do in practice and the coming weekends.”
Senior Kelly Pang agreed. “Fortunately we get to say that this is September and not November…it just gets that chip off your shoulder of having that additional pressure of defending an undefeated season because a national championship season is obviously the main goal, and those two don’t necessarily equate to each other.”
Hargrave paced the Bears with 24 kills—she led the team in each of the four matches in the tournament—and junior Meghan Byrne added 16 while Nelligan had six solo blocks to lead the team.
The team’s most impressive statistical performance this weekend came in the first match against Wittenberg, when Pang set the school’s all-time record for career digs, usurping the previous record of 2,045, a significant achievement considering the program’s storied history.
“It’s a really great honor,” Pang said, “and I’m just fortunate that…I can help our team perform that much better, but at the same time, I couldn’t do it without the help of each and every one of the individuals that I’ve been fortunate enough to play with. I have the best teammates in the world; it was a great time and opportunity to share that time with them.”
To put this weekend in perspective, the Bears played three five-set matches all of last season. This year, they have now matched that total, and the leaves outside have yet to change color.
“We really never had any matches that pushed us to our breaking point, to a point where we had to push through, to a point where we weren’t playing where we should be,” Hargrave said of the 2011 season. About the Bears’ playoff loss to Carthage, Hargrave said, “We were being pushed, and we didn’t know how to handle it because we’d never been there before. But we got pushed three times this weekend.”
“I’m really proud of how hard everybody worked and how collected we all stayed. I don’t think that there was a moment where any of us were ever flustered, which is incredibly important when you’re in those tight matches,” Fisher said. “Every single team that we faced has come out just completely firing at all cylinders because we have a big target on our backs.”
As the Bears learned this weekend, factors as seemingly insignificant as a loose net cord, a slightly upturned palm or a missed rotation can submarine matches. Against the caliber of opponents that Wash. U. will face come playoffs in November and with that “target on [their] backs” that comes with such a high ranking, the Bears will have to be ready for similarly close matches and, therefore, must perfect even the tiniest of potential missteps.