Kurt Rohrbeck, Sports Reporter
It was last Friday, around 5:00 PM Central Time. I was sitting in my dorm room, watching online as the Washington University women’s volleyball team had just dropped the third set against Hope College and now faced an ultimatum: win the next two sets, or leave University Heights, Ohio—and end their amazing run this season—a day early. When Head Coach Rich Luenemann was forced to burn his second timeout of the set early on, with the team down 9-5, the person who I was watching the game with simply told me “It’s over, they’ve got nothing.”
While I didn’t agree with that, as I didn’t for a second doubt that this team was capable of coming back, I’ll admit I was nervous. Hope was handling the Bears the same way they had been when they handed Wash. U. its first loss of the season back on September 5. I had no plans on giving up, but I had a bit of concern that the end was near.
Now let’s fast forward 27 hours later, where it was 9:00 PM Eastern Time and I was sitting in the DeCarlo Varsity Center in Ohio, watching the Bears celebrate the national championship that they had just won over No. 1 Juniata College.
There are so many things to say about this team and the season they’ve had that I don’t have any idea where to start. That fourth set against Hope and everything that occurred after it until the end of the final match essentially captured what this team is all about: hard work, heart, and teamwork.
So let’s go back to that match on Friday night. After scoring one more out of the timeout to go up 10-5, Hope put their ensuing serve into the net, putting the score at 10-6 and giving the serve back to the Bears. A Hope attacking error and a Lauren Budde kill later, the Bears found themselves within two points of erasing their early deficit and bringing this match within their grasp. Slowly, Wash. U. chipped its way through the next several points and eventually knotted the score at 16-16 on another kill by Budde.
As the set went on, the team’s heroes emerged. Erin Albers, one of the team’s two senior captains, clearly did not plan on letting her career end then and there, finishing the set with six of her career-high 25 kills. Budde made one of her best cases for the NCAA Most Outstanding Player award that she would carry home the next night, pulling in five kills and two blocks.
Yet despite the rally, the Bears found themselves down 22-23 and now two points away from a bitter end. Then Albers put down her sixth and final kill of the set. Freshman Drew Hargrave, who found her way into the starting lineup after Erin Kasson’s injury and has done nothing but improve since, threw down another kill and put the Bears at set point. Finally, despite being turned away at their first two chances, Budde put down her last kill of the set to make it 26-25. An attack error by Hope marked the end of the set.
Just like that, the Bears went from staring defeat in the eyes to pushing it to the ground, laughing. Just like that, the tide had turned. Just like that, the Bears had put themselves in a prime position to be one step away from their ultimate goal.
Surely enough, as you may have heard, the Bears won the final set and took their 10th NCAA Championship the following night.
Wash. U., with the elite volleyball program it has, will be in the national title discussion every single year. If there were any doubts about the legitimacy of this year’s squad, they were eliminated on September 18, when the Bears swept this same Juniata team out of the Wash. U. Field House. But regardless, the way that this season unfolded, and the way the Bears took out any challenge in their path, was awe-inspiring and is worth taking a look back on.
This is a team that lost its original starting setter, Vicki Blood, essentially as soon as the season started—and suddenly found the most productive setter in Division III, freshman Marilee Fisher, in its starting lineup.
This is also a team that lost their All-American outside hitter, Erin Kasson, about halfway through the season to undisclosed injury—which opened up room not only for Hargrave’s emergence on the outside but also gave the team’s other outside hitters a reason to give everything they had to step up their game.
This is a noticeably young team that has been adjusting on the fly all year. With nine of the team’s top 12 players (in terms of total sets played) being freshmen or sophomores, there was certainly some time necessary for adjustment and developing chemistry.
So how did they do it?
Because they’ve got everything that’s needed to put together an incredible team, and they know that that is how they’re going to win games.
They have the leadership. Coach Luenemann has spent the year talking about how Albers and Brazeal have been two of the best captains he’s ever had—and with the young core of this team, having solid leadership in place is key. They’ve been models of consistency in their time here, as can be seen by Brazeal’s 1,560 career digs (good for fourth all time in Wash. U. history), and they’re clutch performers who step it up in crunch time, which was made very clear when Albers kicked it into overdrive against Hope and registered her career high in kills in her next to last game as a Bear. Not to be lost in the discussion, as well, is junior captain Marya Kaminski, who also came through big in the end, registering season highs in kills, attack percentage, and digs in the final against Juniata.
They have the heart. That was the word that they all used to describe their team after the national championship match. Despite everything that may have occurred during the year, none of them ever flinched. Every challenge that stepped in their way only brought them closer—and consequently more dangerous on the court. It was a group of individuals who, six at a time, gave their all, for themselves and for everyone else on the team. Luenemann said after the championship that even if they aren’t the most talented team out there (which isn’t to say that there isn’t some spectacular talent on the team), it was an absolute that they were the team with the most heart. And I’m in no rush to disagree.
Lastly, they have the enthusiasm. The drive. The motors that just won’t shut off. I’ve been watching sporting events at all levels for the past 13 years, and I can’t say that I’ve seen many teams as consistently resilient and positive as this one. The levels of energy that the Bears show at all times are remarkable. There would be times—rare occasions, but times nonetheless—where the Bears would be down six or seven points in a set, and I’d look over at them and I would still see Kelly Pang and Tricia Brandt running around, yelling and high-fiving everyone like they had just won the lottery. Every point scored, no matter the circumstance, led to a massive celebration. Not a thing in the world could slow them down until the final whistle had sounded, and until it had, no game they were in could be considered over.
Put all of these things together, and what do you have? The textbook model for an incredible team. And we have now seen what an incredible team is capable of doing: anything it wants to do.
So let’s go back yet again to that fourth set on Friday evening. The Bears were down 9-5. Things looked grim. It was crunch time. It was time for the team to pull together like they never had before and give everything they had.
When we look at it that way…really, was there any doubt?
Congrats, ladies. Enjoy it, because you deserve it.