Volleyball drops three straight to ranked opponents
The Washington University volleyball team began the Wittenberg Fall Classic by dropping a 25-10 first set to Hope College, the Bears’ worst loss in a single set since Division III switched to 25-point sets in 2008. Unfortunately for Wash. U., the weekend didn’t improve much from there.
The No. 6 Bears went 1-3 at the national tournament in Springfield, Ohio, falling to 9-3 overall this season and only 2-3 against ranked teams. After losing handily to No. 5 Hope (25-10, 21-25, 25-22, 25-19) and No. 1 Calvin College (25-17, 25-17, 26-24) on Friday, the Red and Green ran their losing streak to three against No. 16 Juniata College (18-25, 20-25, 25-21, 25-18, 15-11) before ending the tournament with a victory over Heidelberg University (25-12, 22-25, 25-14, 25-20).
Against Hope, the Red and Green hit .000 as a team in the disastrous first set, meaning they had as many errors as kills, and they struggled with their hitting for the duration of the match. No player with more than one attempt hit better than .200 as Hope’s defense routinely stymied Wash. U.’s offensive flow.
A slow start also plagued Wash. U. against Calvin. While the Bears posted a .025 mark in the first set, the top-ranked Knights managed a robust .407 mark. The Red and Green also squandered a set point in the third set as the Knights scored the last three to finalize the sweep. It was the first time that Wash. U. lost a regular season match in just three sets since September 2009.
“They read our offense very well, and we tended in those games especially to play it safe,” sophomore setter Cassie Wang said about the Bears’ offensive struggles. “We would take safe shots, safe swings. When in that situation, we’re the underdog. We needed to go up and rip a ball and take chances.”
It might seem strange for Wash. U. to be considered the underdog in volleyball, a sport it has traditionally dominated, but Wang said that playing away from home sapped the young team of some of its intensity. About playing on the road, she described, “Part of the challenge is finding that spark. But I think because this tournament was such an eye-opener and because we played some great teams and didn’t necessarily battle as hard as we wanted to, I think the next time we face a team away, not on our turf, we’re just going to be pissed off, and I don’t care if this isn’t our house, we’re going to defend it like it is.”
The most disheartening loss of the weekend came against old rival Juniata, in a match in which the Bears were favorites. They held a two-set lead and looked to be on their way to salvaging the weekend, but the Eagles picked up their play in sets three and four to tie the match. In the fifth set, Wash. U. never led, and Juniata scored the last four points to transform an 11-11 tie into an upset victory.
The Bears finally ended the losing streak in the fourth match of the weekend. They did unto Heidelberg what Calvin had done unto them, hitting .393 in the first set while forcing Heidelberg into a -.115 mark—more errors than kills—and parlaying their strong play into several convincing set wins.
Middle hitters sophomore Jackie Nelligan and freshman Caroline Dupont each tallied 15 kills in the match; for Nelligan, it was a career high and led to her appearance on the all-tournament team.
“They’re great hitters,” Wang said about the middles’ effectiveness, “but I don’t think teams are used to seeing that quick of an offense, like an attack coming at them so quickly, and we also tend to run our middles more than other teams…It’s working, so keep doing it.”
The middles’ play is a silver lining to be taken back home to St. Louis, and ending the weekend with a win gives the team at least some confidence going forward. The Bears have two weeks of practice to fix their offensive rhythm and defensive consistency issues before hosting the Washington University Invitational Sept. 27-28.