Volleyball find payback, escapes with four-win weekend

| Senior Editor

It wasn’t easy going, but the Washington University volleyball team survived an upset scare and maintained its perfect record through another weekend.

Junior Caroline Dupont had 11 kills during Saturday's game against Cornell College.  The Bears defeated Cornell College 3-0 as part of the Baden Invite tournament.Allison Hamburg | Student Life

Junior Caroline Dupont had 11 kills during Saturday’s game against Cornell College. The Bears defeated Cornell College 3-0 as part of the Baden Invite tournament.

The No. 8 Bears (10-0) won all four games of their final home tournament of the season, alternating routine wins over DePauw University and Cornell College with a pair of more meaningful victories against No. 14 Elmhurst College and Hendrix College.

Although the match against Elmhurst was the Bears’ first against a ranked team this season, it was the win over Hendrix that provided some unexpected fireworks to close out the weekend.

The last time Hendrix played in the Field House, Wash. U. won a five-set thriller in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Division III tournament, eking out the last set 16-14. The rematch on Saturday offered the same result, with the Bears notching another 16-14 final-set triumph.

But that outcome was in doubt for much of the afternoon as an error-prone Wash. U. attack staked Hendrix to a two-set lead. The Bears never trailed during sets three or four en route to equalize, but the fifth set provided some tense moments for the undefeated Wash. U. squad.

Hendrix used a 7-1 run in the final set to take a 10-8 lead, leaving the Bears just five points from defeat, but a service error and three Wash. U. kills gave the home team the advantage. At 14-13, the Bears squandered a match-point opportunity, but a back-row kill by senior Nkiru Udenze and a Hendrix attack error secured the Wash. U. win.

It was just the latest in a pattern for this year’s Bears, who bounce back from set losses with more inspired, aggressive play on the ensuing points.

“We play best when we’re aggressive and going after the ball,” senior setter Allison Zastrow said, adding that the team responds to losing a set by focusing more on its aggressive game plan.

“Our sense of urgency is best” after losing a set, head coach Vanessa Walby said, referring also to the team’s recovery from a second-set defeat against Elmhurst the night before.

In that match, Wash. U. and Elmhurst split the first two sets before the Bears won with convincing 25-17 scores in the third and fourth sets, bringing a satisfying end to a bitter streak.

The Bears celebrate after a point during Saturday's match against Cornell College.  This weekend, the Bears went undefeated in four matches in the Baden Invite.Allison Hamburg | Student Life

The Bears celebrate after a point during Saturday’s match against Cornell College. This weekend, the Bears went undefeated in four matches in the Baden Invite.

“Beating Elmhurst was definitely something that we, especially seniors, have been looking forward to for a few years,” Zastrow said with a smile.

The victory was a long time coming. It was the first for the Bears in five tries against Elmhurst, which eliminated Wash. U. from the postseason in both 2012 and 2013 and picked up wins in the regular season each of the last two years. In those four losses, the Bears won just three sets against the Bluejays’ 12.

But the Bears were an offensive force against Elmhurst, more than doubling the visitors’ hitting percentage thanks to a fast-paced attack from all corners of the court.

“Mentally this was a good game for us,” Walby said. “We got into a rhythm; we had tough situations that we battled through, and we made pretty quick adjustments.”

The team’s two middles contributed their usual share of powerful attacks: Senior Jackie Nelligan and junior Caroline Dupont combined for 99 kills across the four weekend games, with Nelligan turning in a 17-kill, no-error performance against DePauw and Dupont tallying double-digit totals in each match.

But Wash. U. also received offensive contributions from the back line, where Udenze’s transition into a six-rotation player gives the Bears another attacking option. As six-rotation players, Udenze and junior Rexi Sheredy stay on the court in both the front and back lines, adding another offensive dimension—the back-row pass—to the Bears’ arsenal.

Wherever Zastrow, the team setter, passes the ball, a teammate with hitting experience will have an opportunity for a kill.

“It’s really nice for me, because I know that no matter what, I have four, five hitters that can just put the ball away from anywhere on the court,” Zastrow said.

Udenze’s position adjustment started in practice last spring, and the formerly offense-only player spent the offseason working on her defensive play, Walby said. Last year, “We had small kids in the back that couldn’t go up and attack, so we’re trying to put more of that into our offense,” the coach explained.

The move has paid dividends thus far: Udenze has double digits in both kills and digs in four of her last five matches, and she paced the Bears with 26 digs against Hendrix. Overall, she averages 3.2 digs per set this year, compared to an overall average of less than one per set in her first three seasons, and her offensive efficiency has improved as well.

That kind of diversified attack will be paramount for Wash. U. going forward, as Elmhurst was just the first in a string of high-profile opponents populating the Bears’ September schedule. Next weekend, the Bears travel to Atlanta for another four-game slate, including matches against No. 2 Calvin College, No. 10 California Lutheran University and No. 11 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Colleges.