Volleyball rolls through opening weekend of conference play

| Sports Reporter

Given two weeks to stew after ending its last tournament with a loss, the No. 1 Washington University women’s volleyball team was eager to return to the court and reestablish its winning ways. In the first of two conference round-robin weekends, the Bears did just that: they routed Rochester, battered Brandeis and conquered Case Western, firmly asserting themselves as the team to beat in the University Athletic Association.

In their opening match against Rochester, the Bears trailed 19-13 in the first set, a stark flashback to their most recent tournament, when they lost the first set in each of their three five-set matches. This time, though, the Red and Green responded with a 12-1 run to close out the set.

“Something about our play was lacking,” senior Marilee Fisher said, “and we knew that it was just a matter of…executing every play. We finally kind of found our feet again, and then from there it was pretty routine…We’re really hard to stop when we’re playing like that.”

With the score tied 18-18 in the second set, the Bears again opened up a lead with a lengthy scoring run. Two aces by freshman Allison Zastrow and two kills each by junior Meghan Byrne and freshman Jackie Nelligan led Wash. U. to a 25-20 victory. The Red and Green wasted no time in wresting control of the ensuing third set, dominating throughout en route to a 25-17 win.

Fisher scored a season-high seven kills in the match, an impressive total for a setter. “If you have an aggressive setter on your team,” she said, “the blockers have to worry not only about the other two hitters, but they have to worry about the ball coming over on the second contact. It disrupts their defensive play because they might stay with the setter for a second longer instead of going after a block…It keeps them guessing, and it keeps them just kind of a step behind us.”

Against a weaker Brandeis team in the second match on Friday, Wash. U. controlled the match for its duration, winning by scores of 25-10, 25-8 and 25-20. In each of the first two sets, the Bears hit better than .350 as a team and simply overpowered the opposing Judges. Junior Emily Tulloch paced Wash. U. with 11 kills on a .476 hitting percentage.

The Red and Green also coasted to a straight-set victory over Case Western (25-17, 25-17, 25-21), trailing for only one point (0-1 in the first set) in the entire match. Tulloch again led Wash. U. with 11 kills, this time sharing that honor with freshman Nkiru Udenze. Senior Drew Hargrave contributed another nine kills.

Midway through the second set, Hargrave’s ninth kill etched her name in the Wash. U. record books as she became the 22nd player in school history to record 1,000 career kills. Hargrave joins fellow senior Kelly Pang, who tallied her 2,000th career dig during the team’s last tournament, in achieving career milestones this season.

“It’s an amazing accomplishment,” Pang said, “and I’m so proud of her. I’m proud to be a part of it and just proud that she’s on our side and not another team…Her success reflects our success. I’m so excited for her to get this recognition because she’s such an awesome player.”

One damper on Wash. U.’s victorious weekend was the knee injury sustained by Byrne late in the match against Rochester. Byrne, a two-time All-American, did not play for the remainder of the weekend, and her status for the five matches over the next week is unclear.

The Bears filled Byrne’s spot with a combination of Tulloch, normally a middle hitter and sometimes shifting to outside hitter, and Udenze seeing increased court time. In her first stretch of extended playing time this season, Udenze substituted admirably for Byrne, accumulating seven kills and four blocks against Brandeis and the aforementioned 11 kills versus Case Western.

“Nkiru stepped in and did a fantastic job…at filling the outside position and side,” Fisher praised. “It goes to show how much depth this team has, and it means that we can fill positions when we need people to step in, and it can be done.”

Yet, Pang cautioned, “We didn’t play nearly as well as we know that we can. I think for us, the big takeaway is just making sure we get ourselves mentally and physically prepared for every single match no matter who [the opponent] is.”

Fisher agreed: “If we don’t come out firing on all cylinders…people are excited to play us, and they’re going to take advantage of any holes that they can find, and we just need to always, always keep on our ‘A’ game playing everyone as hard as we can.”

It will be up to the Bears to plug those holes and mitigate errors before their next batch of matches. In the meantime, they can enjoy their return to sweeping the opposition and avoiding the drama of five-set battles.

Wash. U. will travel across St. Louis to face Webster University on Wednesday before hosting the Bears Classic over the weekend, a tournament that will feature four games in two days for Wash. U..

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