With senior night win over Middlebury, Tufts volleyball remains atop conference

Junior setter Angelu Yu fires a serve in the match against UMass Boston on Sept. 26. (Eddie Samuels / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts volleyball (15–5) faced a jam-packed weekend, playing a home match on Friday night followed by two away matches on Saturday. The Jumbos held their own by finishing the weekend 2–1, with their one loss coming in a five-set match.

On Saturday, the team traveled to Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., where they faced the Worcester Polytech Institute (WPI) Engineers (8–14) and the Endicott Gulls (14–9) in back-to-back matches.

The Gulls handed the Jumbos their fifth loss this season in an intense five-set match. The Jumbos faced a daunting 0–2 deficit after losing the first two sets 25–21 and 25–16, respectively.  Tufts staged a comeback in the third and fourth sets, edging out Endicott 25–23 and 28–26. Ultimately, the Jumbos’ efforts fell short, as they were defeated by Endicott in the tie-breaking final set by a score of 15–8.

Sophomore middle blocker Christina Nwankpa had one of her best performances of the season against the Gulls, as she led the Jumbos with an impressive 12 kills and five blocks to keep them in the contest for all five sets.

Junior outside hitter Mackenzie Bright believes the Jumbos’ struggles against the Gulls were a result of difficulty adjusting to their opponent’s style of play.

“Endicott definitely knocked us back on our heels for the first couple of games,” Bright said. “We had trouble adjusting to what they were doing. They are a really tough team to play and had a fantastic game.”

Earlier, Tufts faced WPI in the first match of the day. The Jumbos dominated from the opening serve as they defeated the Engineers in straight sets: 25–17, 25–22 and 25–11.

Tufts dominated all aspects of the match. The team boasted strong serving throughout the contest, recording twice as many aces (12) as WPI did (six). Four of the Jumbos’ aces came from sophomore outside hitter Rachel Furash. Twelve kills and four blocks from sophomore middle blocker Heather Holz were also a major factor in the Jumbos’ success against the Engineers.

“Our middles in particular did a fantastic job of finding spots to put the ball down,” Bright said. “They did really well constantly adjusting to the block.”

Saturday’s double header followed Tufts’ home victory over the Middlebury Panthers (14–5) in four sets on Friday evening. The Panthers had only lost one NESCAC match going into Friday, making this one of the toughest matchups the Jumbos had seen yet this season.

“Heading into the Middlebury match, the expectations were primarily the same as any other match,” Holz said, adding that, “we need to always make sure that we are going into it with 100 percent focus.”

After winning the first set 25–19, the Jumbos were unable to overcome an early Panther lead in the second set. With Middlebury’s 25–15 capture of the second frame, the score stood at 1–1.

Sophomore opposite hitter Maddie Stewart, who recorded 11 kills and five blocks against Middlebury, came up big for Tufts in the third set with a number of vital serves and kills. Tufts came out on top in the third (25–21) and fourth sets (25–23) to secure the victory over Middlebury.

Friday’s match was not only significant because the Jumbos faced a tough in-conference rival, but also because it was Senior Night. The team honored senior captain defensive specialist Alexandra Garrett for her four seasons of contributions before the match. The excitement of the evening did not distract the Jumbos from their goal of coming away with a win.

“Senior Night is always exciting, given we are recognizing great team players,” Holz said. “However, we are always focused on the job at hand.”

Looking at the remainder of the season, the Jumbos will play three out-of-conference matches at the upcoming New England Challenge in Williamstown, Mass. before they wrap up their regular season with two NESCAC away matches. Their current in-conference record of 8–0 puts the Jumbos at the top of the NESCAC standings and in a good position with the postseason fast approaching. Despite its stellar record and top-level play all season, Tufts remains humble and focused.

“We continue to take it one day at a time, really living in the present moment,” Holz said. “We continue to improve as a team as the season progresses.”

Bright echoed a similar sentiment about the importance of staying focused and not thinking too far ahead.

“We have a lot of tough games coming up against awesome teams,” Bright said. “We are really trying to focus on consistency and the energy that we bring to the court. We want to make sure that we are constantly focused.”

Tufts will face the No. 15 MIT Engineers (21–1) on Oct. 20 at the New England Challenge, as well as the Babson Beavers (16–4) and the Springfield Pride (14–7) on Oct. 21. The Tufts-Springfield match will be a rematch of last year’s NCAA Div. III Tournament Regional Final, when the Jumbos beat the Pride in four sets to earn their second-ever berth in the quarterfinals.