Volleyball upsets No. 4 Emory for share of regular-season UAA title

Brian Benton | Student Life

Sophomore Jackie Nelligan, left, and freshman Rexi Sheredy, right, attempt a block during weekend play. Against No. 4 Emory University on Sunday, Nelligan served out the final five points of the match as the No. 11 Bears completed their comeback.

With a conference title on the line, the crowded Field House loud and its top rival on the other side of the net, Washington University’s volleyball team had its best stretch of play of the season and earned a share of the University Athletic Association regular season crown.

Just two points from defeat against No. 4 Emory University, the No. 11 Bears sent sophomore middle hitter Jackie Nelligan to the service line. Nelligan is an infrequent server for Wash. U., often not playing on the back line, but she continued to serve for the remainder of the match as the Bears won the last six points, transforming a 13-9 deficit into a 15-13 fifth-set victory.

After an Emory service error put Wash. U. within three points at 10-13, a block, two Emory attack errors and an ace—only the fourth of Nelligan’s career—gave Wash. U. its first lead of the set. On the winning point, a dual block by sophomore right side Nkiru Udenze and freshman middle hitter Caroline Dupont gave the Bears the victory and sent players streaming from the bench onto the court to swarm teammates responsible for the winning 6-0 run.

“She’s very consistent,” head coach Luke Young said about keeping Nelligan in to serve. “In a tight situation like that, it makes a lot of sense for us to keep the ball in play. [Nelligan] is a good server; she’s going to get them out of system. It was just a matter of keeping the ball in the court and allowing the defense to take care of business.”

For her part, Nelligan said she had only one thought in mind while serving: “Get my serve over. That’s all that was going through my head.”

“I was terrified, to be perfectly honest,” she added about the possibility of being forced to play defense on the back line. “When they ran their offense, our blocking was really stepped up when I was serving, which was great because I was terrified. I think that’s what won it for us, was the blocking.”

In the fourth set, Wash. U. had also looked to be on the brink of defeat but used a 10-2 run to secure control and send the match to a decisive fifth set.

“We have such resilience as a team, which has shown in many of our five-set matches of the season. What we need to work on now is not having to need that resilience in the first place. Winning in five sets shows us that we can win in three,” Nelligan said.

Dupont was the top point-scorer for Wash. U. with 16 kills and a .387 hitting percentage, but after tallying seven kills on eight swings in the first set, she had trouble counteracting Emory’s blocking. The Eagles posted 13 blocks—the most by any other Bears’ opponent this season is 10—which forced Wash. U. to shift its offensive approach.

“Ultimately, we recognized that their middles are very concerned with our middles,” Young said. “It would open up more for our pin hitters—our left sides and our right sides—and I think that was the big difference.”

“They double-blocked our middles a ton, and when that’s happening, it’s very hard for them to close effectively to that left side or the right side,” Young added.

This adjustment proved crucial for the Bears as Emory didn’t record a block after Wash. U. started its lengthy scoring run in the fourth set. One beneficiary of the increased focus on hitting from the sides was Udenze, who tallied 13 kills, the second-highest total of his career, after struggling for the past few tournaments.

“Nkiru Udenze came out of her shell this match, really this weekend,” Young said. “We’ve been waiting for a right side to kind of take charge, and she did that today in the two matches—here and against NYU. It gives us a big breath of fresh air going into essentially three weeks of focusing a little bit more on what the postseason looks like.”

“When they stick with the middles, obviously I have a split or an open ball, so I can just crank as much as I want with no block,” Udenze said. When describing where she aims when hitting against a defense as potent as Emory’s, Udenze laughed. “Just aiming at the floor or somebody’s face—either one is good for me.”

Before playing Emory, Wash. U. swept its first three matches of the weekend, defeating UAA opponents Carnegie Mellon, Case Western and New York Universities. The latter game was a dress rehearsal for the comeback against Emory—the Bears trailed by as many as nine points in the second set but rallied behind a 9-1 run to secure a two-sets-to-none lead.

“It’s great. We’re coming off this with so much confidence and so much drive to get even better,” Nelligan said about the undefeated weekend, which pushed the Bears’ winning streak to eight games, tying a season high.

Every year since 2007, Wash. U. and Emory have split their matchups in the regular season—one team winning in the UAA Round Robin and the other exacting vengeance in the conference championship. Odds are, then, that the Bears and Eagles will play again this year with UAA supremacy in the balance.

“It’s hard because obviously, we get really pumped to play our rival, but at the same time, we have to treat them like they’re any other team that we can beat and that we can beat easily,” Nelligan said. “It’s an interesting mix of trying to hype yourself up and trying to calm yourself down. But obviously, beating them in such a close game is huge, and everyone is just ecstatic right now.”