Volleyball finishes strong in home tournament

| Sports Reporter

Fitting for the Halloween Invitational, the top-ranked Washington University volleyball team encountered several scares en route to winning the tournament. The first fright, Friday night’s match against No. 24 Juniata College, doubled as Senior Night, and depending on the locations of the regional rounds of this season’s Division III tournament, the Bears’ senior class, one of the most decorated in school history, may have donned Wash. U. jerseys at home for the final time.

But of more pressing concern were the matches to be played and two pesky underdogs—Juniata and St. Ambrose University—that sought to ruin the seniors’ last home matches.

After soundly defeating an overpowered Alverno College by a score of 25-7, 25-11, 25-17, the Bears headed into their night match buoyed by the emotion of the pre-game ceremony to honor the seniors—Meg Buker, Marilee Fisher, Drew Hargrave and Kelly Pang, along with student assistant Emmy Luenemann.

“It was high emotion,” Fisher said. “It’s a huge honor to be honored by the team, and it was just a lot of fun being surrounded by the girls that I’ve played with for the past three, four years…it was sad, but it felt good.”

The match did not go as scripted, however, as the Bears ceded five aces and dropped the first set, 19-25.

“Whether it was just nerves or a lack of focus,” Pang said, “we definitely did not come out well. We didn’t play as well as we need to, and I think it’s just a matter of executing and taking one skill at a time…as a unit, once we do that, we become much better.”

Eric Chaufour | Student Life

Senior Marilee Fisher sets up a teammate for a kill during the Bear's match against No. 24 Juniata College. Despite dropping the first set, Wash. U. bounced back to win 3-1.

Wash. U. then bounced back to take the second set, 25-23. Trailing 17-10 in the third set, freshman Jackie Nelligan’s solo block sparked a 9-0 run, including five kills by Hargrave in a six-point span. At 24-23, Nelligan’s second block of the set gave the Bears another tense 25-23 win.

The fourth set was less dramatic, with the Bears leading throughout to win 25-20. Hargrave paced the Bears with 19 kills in the match, and junior Tessa Blood tallied 10 kills and a .391 hitting percentage.

Against St. Ambrose on Saturday, Wash. U. struggled to maintain a consistent attack and split the first two sets. For the remainder of the match, freshmen Allison Zastrow and Nkiru Udenze replaced All-Americans Fisher and junior Meghan Byrne at setter and outside hitter, respectively. The lineup changes sparked the Bears in the final two sets, and Wash. U. won its last match of the regular season (25-17, 21-25, 25-16, 25-17).

“We felt comfortable putting [Zastrow] in there and getting [Fisher] a little bit of a break,” head coach Rich Luenemann said. “[Fisher] had some shoulder issues, and when you get an opportunity to give her a break, it’s a big plus…We have so much confidence in our other setters…that we feel comfortable putting them in, even in tight situations.”

Hargrave led the Bears with 21 kills on 45 attacks, good for a .400 hitting percentage, and Udenze added 12 kills with a robust .478 percentage.

Yet the Bears were disappointed in their subpar play this weekend.

“Certainly when you win, that’s a plus, but we played very much out of our system, and we didn’t execute our skills very well at all,” Luenemann said. “This was not smooth play; this was not a high level of skill execution…we have to get better.”

Next week, the Bears travel to Atlanta, Ga., for the University Athletic Association conference tournament. A likely second-round rematch against the University of Chicago, one of only two teams to defeat Wash. U. this year, and a potential finals rematch against Emory University whom the Bears defeated in a thrilling five-setter earlier this season, await the Red and Green.

“We can’t be complacent after this week,” Luenemann said. “We have to realize that our game has dropped back a bit, and we have to play at a significantly higher level.”

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.