Tufts falls to Middlebury in NESCAC Championship game, receives NCAA bid

Outside / opposite hitter first-year Maddie Stewart hits the ball over a Middlebury player in the NESCAC championship game against the Middlebury Panthers on Nov. 6. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

Despite an unblemished regular season in conference play, Tufts faltered against Middlebury in the NESCAC championship game on Sunday. The umboumbos must again wait to capture the NESCAC volleyball conference championship, which they have not won since 1996.

Tufts was as focused a team as it had been all season heading into the tournament this past weekend, and it played together at as high of a level as it has all season.

“Though our other season goals extend beyond NESCACs, we are focused on staying in the present moment, which is one of our team mantras,” senior middle hitter McKenzie Humann said.

It was a thrilling five-set NESCAC Championship match that saw Middlebury come out on top at Cousens Gym. This marks the second time in three years in which Tufts has captured the No. 1 seed for the NESCAC tournament, only to fall in five sets in the championship. In 2014, Tufts lost a five-set match to Williams in the championship game.

The Jumbos came out strong on Sunday, winning the first set 25-14 behind a dominant offensive attack. However, the Panthers responded quickly to even the match with a 25-19 second set win.

The third set was back-and-forth to start as well, but after a brief 13-13 tie, the Panthers went on a 6-2 run and never looked back. They captured the third set 25-19.

The fourth set was the closest of the day and a good indication of the intensity with which both teams played. The set was decided in extra points, with Tufts holding on for a 26-24 win off of a kill from first-year outside hitter Brigid Bell and an error from the Panthers. In the deciding fifth set, Tufts initially held the momentum, taking a 10-6 lead. However the Jumbos lost seven straight points — six of which came while junior outside hitter Becca Raffel was serving — and dropped the set 15-11 and the match 3-2.

Bell and Humann led Tufts’ offense, tallying 15 and 10 kills, respectively. First-year libero Kelly Klimo posted 31 digs on the day, and the setting was largely handled by sophomore and first-year setters Angela Yu and Rachel Furash with 24 and 17 assists, respectively.

“This past week was challenging in many ways both academically and athletically, and yet our team had some of their best practices all season prior to the tournament,” coach Cora Thompson told the Daily in an email. “Although we were incredibly disappointed with the outcome of the tournament Sunday, we played some of our best volleyball over the course of the weekend.”

In order to get to the NESCAC championship, Tufts had to pick up a couple key victories earlier in the weekend.

On Saturday, Tufts defeated Bowdoin in four sets in Cousens Gym. After trailing most of the set, the Jumbos dropped the first set 25-21. As the teams began to trade points again in the second set, it looked like the Polar Bears might have been headed for an unlikely upset, but the Jumbos pulled away to an 8-4 lead on Furash’s serve and never trailed again in the set. They led by as many as eight points at 17-9 before Bowdoin mounted a comeback to within one point. However a kill from junior outside hitter Katie Kim, immediately followed by two from sophomore outside hitter Mackenzie Bright, iced the set for Tufts and evened the match at 1-1.

Sets three and four were both close the whole way, though both times Tufts was able to pull out to a slight lead and maintain the advantage all the way, winning 25-23 and 25-21, respectively. Bright and senior co-captain middle hitter Elizabeth Ahrens led the charge with nine kills each on the day, and Yu took care of most of the setting with 30 assists.

Tufts defeated Connecticut College on Friday in the NESCAC Quarterfinal. The Jumbos dispatched the Camels in four sets in Cousens Gym. Tufts won the first two sets by a combined margin of 24 points. Conn. College came out fast and strong in the third set, though. The visitors led by as many as 10 points and nothing was clicking for the hosts as the Camels captured the third set 25-17. Tufts quickly stifled any hope of a comeback, as it proceeded to dominate the fourth set 25-5, including a 17-1 run, while Bell served to take the match.

Even though Tufts did not win the conference and obtain an automatic bid, it was granted an at-large bid for the Div. III NCAA tournament on the strength of their 24-3 record on the season. The team is currently ranked No. 27 in the nation for Div. III by the AVCA Coaches’ poll. Having been granted a second chance, Tufts is ready to play.

“Those games (against Bowdoin and Middlebury) showed just how much grit and determination this team has and certainly we feel as though we have a lot of ball left in us,” Thompson said. “So we are going to be grateful for an NCAA at-large bid and make the most of our opportunities going forward.”

Tufts will host the NCAA Regional this weekend and take on Maine Maritime Academy at 8 p.m. on Friday in the NCAA first round. At 4 p.m. on Saturday, the victor of that contest will play the winner of the game between UMass Boston and Johnson and Wales University. Sunday’s Regional final begins at 1 p.m.