Volleyball aims to reclaim national dominance, title
With 10 national championships, the Washington University volleyball team is the most successful in NCAA Division III history; a run of early postseason exits, though, has left the Bears titleless since 2009—a veritable drought by the program’s standards. The team’s No. 11 ranking is its lowest ever in a preseason poll, but most of last year’s key players return and give the Bears hope for another run to a championship.
The 2013 volleyball season was one to forget for the Bears. A 27-8 record and No. 13 ranking might seem strong to the outside observer, but the record was the Bears’ worst since 1985 and their worst ranking ever. A second-round loss to Elmhurst College in the second round of the NCAA tournament finished the season prematurely, marking the third consecutive year that the Bears failed to advance past the first weekend of postseason play.
Key Player: sophomore Caroline Dupont, middle hitter
Dupont was a popular name during last year’s awards season as the Leawood, Kan., native was named the Division III Freshman of the Year and selected to the All-America First Team. She was just the second player in school history to achieve both of those honors. Dupont led the 2013 Bears with a .351 hitting percentage and ranked second on the team in blocks, kills and aces. Along with junior Jackie Nelligan—an honorable mention All-American and first-team all-conference selection—Dupont gives the Red and Green a powerful tandem at middle hitter.
Fellow sophomores Rexi Sheredy and Kalehua Katagiri are also returning starters—Sheredy led the team in kills and Katagiri in digs last year. “Coming back as sophomores, you can tell they’re much more confident this year, which is amazing…it’s a lot of building off last year,” Nelligan praised.
Head coach Vanessa Walby enters her first year at Wash. U. after a successful tenure at University Athletic Association rival University of Chicago. Although new to the school, Walby is familiar with the UAA and the caliber of teams that the Bears will face this year.
Under Walby, the Red and Green have placed an increased emphasis on conditioning. “She made it clear that conditioning was going to be a priority for us, and in the past, it hasn’t been as much of a priority,” Nelligan said. “It allows you to stay consistent through longer games.”
“For the fitness tests I’ve done in prior years, these kids mastered it pretty quickly, which normally doesn’t happen in a team’s first year of doing that type of stuff,” Walby said. “They worked really hard this summer of coming back in great shape so that we could pay attention to volleyball instead of conditioning…they’re pursuing balls, they’re diving all over the place and they’re pretty relentless right now, which is good because their bodies are sore and they are pushing through all of that.”
On the court:
Of the Bears’ top 10 players in sets played last year, eight return for the 2014 season. Between Dupont and Nelligan and a cast of young outside and right side hitters, the Bears should have a varied offensive arsenal. An area of concern carrying over from the disappointing swoon to end 2013 is defense, where the Bears have struggled to replace all-time digs leader Kelly Pang, who graduated as a four-time All-American before last year.
“We’ve had six practices now, and we’ve only focused half of one practice on offense,” Walby said last week. “I feel like if we can get the ball up to our setter and work things smoothly that way, our offense is going to flow pretty smoothly off of that.”
Game to watch:
Home against No. 7 Wittenberg University, Sept. 6
The Bears’ schedule is brutal—the team will face 10 of the top 17 teams in the AVCA preseason poll. The first of these matches, on Sept. 6 against Wittenberg University, marks the Bears’ last weekend home game for nearly two months. The combination of top opponents and road matches—last year, Wash. U. tallied a 17-1 record at the Field House but just an 10-7 mark away from home—will present the Bears with a series of stiff challenges before the postseason begins.
“It’s necessary to see the type of team that we’re hoping to be facing in the postseason and how we stack up against them, so I’m really excited about our schedule,” Nelligan said. “We don’t play here because we want to play easy teams and beat them; we play here because we want to play the toughest teams in Division III, and that’s what we’re getting to do this year.”