Volleyball knocked from tourney in first round
When Washington University first faced Claremont-Mudd-Scripps this year in the East to West Battle Sept. 13, both teams were in different places. Despite a 7-3 record, Wash. U. had sputtered out of the gate, losing two of its first four games. With three losses to unranked teams, the hope for a 33rd-straight NCAA tournament appearance seemed uncertain. CMS, on the other hand, had steamrolled through its competition to a 8-1 record and No. 3 ranking.
But CMS did not steamroll Wash. U. in September. The first three sets went to extra points and CMS outlasted Wash. U. 25-20 in the fourth set to escape with a 3-1 victory. But that is just what it was: an escape. A match that, if replayed, could have gone either way.
The two teams met again on Friday, this time in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Yet little changed from the first tournament in terms of the result. It was another seesaw battle, but the Athenas came out on top yet again, 3-1, handing the Bears an early exit from the tournament and putting an end to their season. The Bears finish the year 24-9.
Wash. U. had come into the match ranked 24th in Division III, so from afar one might have expected a blowout win for No. 5 CMS, but that was not the case. “Once you hit postseason, it’s a fresh season. Everybody is coming to play and there are no underdogs,” Wash. U. head coach Vanessa Walby said in the postgame press conference.
As the first set came to a close, Wash. U. led 19-14. Everything was clicking. Five kills from sophomore Michaela Bach. Seven assists from junior Kirby Knapp. Just six more points and Wash. U. would be up 1-0 on a top-five team in the country. Just six more points and the Bears would be that much closer to advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Just six more points and they would have another upset under their belt—just one week after taking down No. 19 Carnegie Mellon University in the University Athletic Association (UAA) third place game.
But the Athenas came roaring back, scoring 11 of the next 13 points to win the first set 25-21. The Bears started the second set down 7-2. The promising start had vanished, it seemed, and so too had the hopes of an NCAA tournament run.
This time, Wash. U. got off a string of five straight points to even the score. The early cohesion had returned. The rest of the set went back and forth, back and forth. But, once again, CMS squeaked by, securing a 25-20 victory.
Every time it looked like CMS would pull away, Wash. U. came back. And every time Wash. U. started clawing back into the game, CMS would tip-toe ahead. Wash. U. won the third set 26-24, but fell in the fourth and final set 22-25, despite coming back from a 12-17 deficit. CMS escaped again, in a game that was eerily similar to their first outing two months earlier.
“[Wash. U.] is a tough first-round opponent. That’s a team that we’re familiar with,” CMS head coach Kurt Vlasich said in the postgame press conference. “They always play us tough every year.”
Wash. U. used a balanced scoring attack to give CMS trouble, as three players finished the game with double digit kills. Bach led the team with 13 kills but senior Leila King, who ranked first in the UAA in hitting percentage, was not far behind her, compiling a .545 hitting percentage and totaling 12 kills.
The Bears also got some late-season help from senior Hannah Turner. After falling out of the rotation midway through the season, including eight games in which she did not play, Turner started the final three games of the season. She averaged 12 kills per game during that stretch, including 7 against CMS.
“[Turner] has been playing with nothing to lose,” Walby told Student Life. “You could see her senior leadership come out. She has been a great swing and block.”
Kirby Knapp led the team with 43 assists, her highest total in five games. Knapp was second in the UAA with 1,226 assists this season, placing her 10th on Wash. U.’s all-time assist leaderboard.
In the final game of her career, senior Zoe Baxter paced the team with 17 digs, finishing her time at Wash. U. second on the all-time digs list.
Despite the success of the team’s veterans, Wash. U. still relied heavily on younger players.
Freshman Alaina Bohrer played in 29 games, while freshman Taryn Gurbach played in 32. Sophomore Michaela Bach had 350 kills, compared to 122 in her first season. Sophomore Caitlin Lorenz went from playing in only 11 games her freshman year to starting in the NCAA tournament game.
“A lot of our underclassmen took on new roles and gained some new experiences, which I think will be helpful in our growth and development,” said Walby.
Maybe that is why there was not an overwhelming sense of sadness in the postgame press conference. Instead, there was a sense of optimism, even from the seniors who had played their last game at Wash. U.
“We have amazing teammates, an amazing coach and the culture that this volleyball team has created, it’s not going anywhere,” Baxter said.