The Jumbos wrapped up their first week of the season with a 3–1 record and clinched two victories out of three games at the New England Invitational, yet they still have multiple questions to answer. With no single player jumping out as the obvious choice, coach Cora Thompson has tried out multiple different first-year and sophomore players at the right side and middle positions. While sophomore middle Christina Nwankpa seems to have locked down one of the starting middle positions, both sophomore middle Heather Holz and first-year middle Jen Ryan have gotten significant time as the other starters.
Over the weekend the Jumbos hosted the New England Invitational at Cousens Gymnasium and played three more matches against non-conference opponents. Starting off Friday night against Rochester Institute of Technology, Tufts won its first match 3–1. Nwankpa starred in the middle with nine kills in the match, hitting smart shots all night and avoiding any errors. After winning the first set with ease, the Jumbos could not overcome a late deficit in the second set and fell 25–20 and let the Tigers tie the match 1–1. The third set was a game of runs by each team, tying the game at 21 apiece. The Jumbos then showed great late game poise and managed to execute the next four points error-free to take the set 25–21. Tufts rolled in the fourth and final set to win by 11 points and take the match on the back of 17 digs from sophomore libero Kelly Klimo and 28 assists from junior setter Angela Yu.
Tufts fought hard in its second home match of the season against Minnesota Morris on Saturday morning. The five-set match was extremely close the entire way with every single set decided by five points or fewer; however, Minnesota Morris ultimately took the crown. The Jumbos offense looked lackluster down the stretch, having committed 25 total errors in the match with a team kill percentage of just 0.160. Thompson had to make adjustments to the lineup in this match, giving Ryan some time at middle instead of Holz. First-year right side hitter Jordan Kron also suffered a small injury in the game and sophomore setter Rachel Furash was forced to fill in as a hitter, recording five kills in the match. Tufts struggled at times to convert its chances into points, and Minnesota Morris took advantage.
Thompson commented on the difference in this year’s team from last year’s.
“The fact is that we are younger than we were last year with 11 first-years and sophomores, only three juniors and one senior, but our leadership is incredibly strong and the vision of this entire group is clear and focused,” Thompson told the Daily in an email. “As a program, we know where we want to go and are ready to work hard for it. We will stay in the present moment and commit to improving with every opportunity we get taking care of the present moment. The big picture will take care of itself.”
Later on Saturday, Tufts, in need of a bounce-back win, defeated Marymount. The Jumbos defeated the Saints in three straight sets and looked like the more polished team for most of the match. Klimo had an outstanding game, recording 16 digs in just three sets, as the Marymount offense couldn’t get anything past her. The Jumbos offense also got slightly back on track in the match with a 0.280 kill percentage. However, while Tufts has a number of capable hitters, the offense still seems to be looking for a player to replace their go-to hitter Elizabeth Ahrens (LA ’17).
Klimo described how the team regrouped following a tough loss and managed to rebound against Marymount.
“Our coach helped us focus on the present moment and the next game rather than dwell on the loss,” Klimo told the Daily in an email. “We’re all very supportive of each other, and our coach and captain helped us keep in mind the goals we have as a team.”
Earlier in the week, Tufts opened its season on the road on Wednesday with a 3–0 win over Clark. Besides the first two points of the third set, Tufts never trailed in the match and dominated offensively. The Jumbos had 18 more kills than the Cougars and held the Cougars to a 0.317 kill percentage. Tufts’ blocking was a large factor in slowing down Clark’s offense, as middles Nwankpa and Holz showed great ability to disrupt the Clark hitters. Junior outside hitter Mackenzie Bright led the team with 15 kills and sophomore outside hitter Brigid Bell added eight.
It was inevitable that the eight-game win-streak to open the 2016 season would be tough to follow, especially after graduating such significant contributors. The younger players, however, have already shown resilience in the face of injury.
Next up Tufts will face Bates (2–2) on Sept. 15 in Cousens Gym for their first conference matchup of the year. Last year, the Jumbos swept the Bobcats 3–0 in October, and Friday’s matchup will also be the Bobcats’ first conference test.