Volleyball falls to Illinois Wesleyan in four sets

| Senior Sports Editor

When the Washington University volleyball team faltered in a four-set loss to DePauw University, they could chalk it up to any number of reasons: rust, new rotations, plain luck. Despite four other wins that weekend, that one blip dropped the Bears from No. 6 to No. 10 in the national rankings. Wednesday night’s matchup at No. 20 Illinois Wesleyan University was a chance for the Red and Green to reassert themselves. They didn’t.

The Bears fell to the Titans 22-25, 25-22, 24-26, 11-25 and with the loss, already match their regular season total from a year ago. The early skid is not completely surprising, considering the Bears lost three starters from the 2015 squad, but with a pair of critical weekends against several west coast opponents from last year’s tournament run coming up the Bears will need to right the ship or risk falling out of the playoff picture entirely.

That’s the conversation now, but through nearly three sets Wednesday night, you could have written a different story. After splitting the first two sets, the Bears went up on the Titans 24-18 and looked poised to take control of the match. Sophomore libero Natalie Stephanus anchored a defense that held the Titan hitters to a 0.096 hitting percentage through the first two matches while the Bears offense did just enough to push a lead.

But then, the Titans scored eight straight points to take the set. During that run, the Bears committed four errors, including three in a row. While the Bears struggled with offensive efficiency the whole night, whatever rhythm they did have, left them. The team hit .032 in the last set, mustering just six kills to five errors. In total, the Bears finished with a .132 team hitting percent- age, their lowest single game total since 2013. Additionally, the defense was unable to contain a re-energized Titans team, which would go on to hit .359 in the final set. The combination resulted in a 14-point beat-down in the final set and a demoralizing loss.

Several key hitters struggled with efficiency throughout the match. Senior middle hitter Caroline Dupont and senior right side hitter Amanda Palucki swung .056 and .105 respectively. Last year, both players were selected to the all-regional team during the NCAA tournament.

While the Bears offensive struggles are unsettling for a team that ranked near the top of Division III in hitting percentage last year, the Illinois Wesleyan game was at least a chance to crystalize the Bears rotation against a ranked opponent. After a positional battle at setter between sophomore Savannah Zhang and freshman Chloe Stile, Zhang received the lion’s share of touches at the position, tallying 33 assists against the Titans. On the back line, Stephanus appeared to take a leadership role, receiving 23 digs.

Next up, the Bears enter a period in their schedule with 4 top-20 opponents in two weeks, including No. 4 Claremont Mudd Scripps and No. 2 Juniata.