Volleyball splits five-setters against ranked conference opponents
The Washington University women’s volleyball team was reeling. Already with one weekend loss smearing the team’s record, the Bears had just squandered a two-set lead against rival Emory University and were forced to enter a fifth set with all the momentum on the Eagles’ side.
A loss would send the Red and Green home with a middling 2-2 record in the second conference round-robin, a disappointing result exacerbated by the reality that the Bears held the lead in both matches but failed to deliver the crucial blow.
With the score even at 11 in the decisive set, though, the Bears proved their worthiness as the top-ranked team in the country with four kills to take the fifth set and the match (28-26, 25-22, 16-25, 23-25, 15-12). The Bears hit a blistering .364 in the last set, compared to just .212 in the first four.
“We wanted to take it from the beginning of the game and play the game at our pace, control the game,” freshman Jackie Nelligan said. “We came out knowing that we needed a lot of focus and a lot of strong execution to just control that set.”
“We exploited their weaknesses and just kept putting the ball back on their side of the court,” said senior Marilee Fisher, “and in the end prevailed. It felt great.”
Senior Drew Hargrave led the Bears with 20 kills, and juniors Meghan Byrne and Tessa Blood each tallied 14. Fisher recorded 56 assists in delivering Wash. U.’s attackers pinpoint sets and disrupting the blocking prowess of Emory’s tall front line.
The loss to Chicago began the weekend on an unexpected note for the Red and Green. The Maroons ended Wash. U.’s record 63-set winning streak last season in a 3-1 loss; this year, they did one better, handing the Bears only their second loss of the season (25-22, 23-25, 14-25, 28-26, 15-12).
Wash. U. trailed 9-4 in the fifth set before rallying with a 7-0 run to take the lead. The score was then knotted at 12 before Chicago claimed the upset victory by scoring the last three points.
Hargrave recorded a team-high 19 kills while Byrne added 14 for the Bears; however, the Bears hit a season-low .176 in the match and struggled to maintain a consistent offensive force.
“We weren’t playing together as a team,” Nelligan said. “It was very messy, and we weren’t connecting very well, [but] I think we did a much, much better job with that against Emory.”
Senior libero Kelly Pang, already the school record-holder for most digs in a match with 36, broke her own record by tallying 47 digs against Chicago, also tying for the second-highest total of any Division III player this season. Her 37 against Emory the next day would also have broken the previous school record.
The Bears played well, though not exceptionally, in their other two matches this weekend—lackluster victories over New York University (25-20, 25-12, 25-14) and Carnegie Mellon University (25-14, 25-18, 25-20). But the weekend will be remembered mainly for the lessons learned from the five-setters.
“It we had lost [to Emory], I think that it would’ve put a damper on the weekend,” senior Marilee Fisher said, “losing to two great teams but teams who we also knew we could beat. We know what we can still play better, that’s the thing, so coming out and beating a team who is nationally ranked and who is our biggest rival and who is incredibly talented, it gives us an outlook of, like, we are proud of the way that we played.”
Nelligan said, “People are still upset that we lost to Chicago, but I think the win against Emory kind of makes up for that. Winning’s always nice, especially the last game because you end on a good note.”
Indeed, unlike the Bears’ first loss of the season, which occurred against Hope College in the last match of a tournament, the Red and Green had an opportunity to redeem themselves later. The victory over Emory salvaged the Bears’ weekend and, combined with a loss by No. 2 Calvin College in a different tournament, sent them home likely to maintain the top national ranking.