Tufts volleyball sweeps rivals at New England Challenge

Sophomores Heather Holz and Brigid Bell jump for a block in the volleyball game versus Hamilton on Sept. 29. Eddie Samuels / The Tufts Daily

This past weekend, Tufts picked up a trio of wins, beating MIT, Babson and Springfield at the New England Challenge tournament at Williams College.

With their wins over the weekend, the Jumbos improved to 18–5 overall and remain first in the NESCAC with an 8–0 conference record. They stand one game ahead of Bowdoin and Wesleyan, who are both 7–1 in the conference.

Led by coach Cora Thompson and assistant coaches Madison Smith and Brian O’Keefe, the Jumbos are well on their way to reaching the high bar they had set for this season. On Oct. 14, the Jumbos picked up a win over Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Beverly, Mass., but lost in five sets to Endicott later that day.

“We are happy with how far we have come and have enjoyed every second of it, but we always look to push ourselves further and always know there is more we can do,” senior captain Alex Garrett said.

Against the Babson Beavers on Saturday, libero and defensive specialist Garrett proved dominant with a serve that dammed the Beavers. The Beavers stayed close initially, with the two squads matching each other blow-for-blow, but with the first set tied at six, sophomore setter Rachel Furash and sophomore outside hitter Maddie Stewart each recorded kills to help the Jumbos pull away. Compounded by a Babson error and another kill by Stewart, Tufts jumped out to a 10–6 lead, carrying the momentum to a 25–17 first-set win.

Garrett dominated the second set, serving up 10 unanswered points for Tufts. Between Garrett’s serve and their front line, the Jumbos proved too much for the Beavers, winning both the second and third sets 25–12.

Anchored by Garrett’s stellar performance — four aces on 23 serves and 10 digs — the Jumbos were also led offensively by sophomore middle hitter Christina Nwankpa. Nwankpa recorded nine kills in 17 attempts (a .529 hitting percentage) with three blocks.

As Garrett is the team’s only senior, the team’s success is a testament to its talented first-years and sophomores. First-year outside hitter/opposite Sophia Acker feels as though she has improved substantially since joining the program just two months ago.

“I definitely feel like I have improved over the past few weeks,” she said. “I think my ball control has gotten better and I feel like I am a better player because of it.”

For Garret, being the only senior is not at all anticlimactic, especially given the team’s success. She is embracing her role as a leader and cherishes the unique opportunity that playing on one of Tufts’ smallest varsity teams offers.

“While this is the youngest team we have had all my four years, it hasn’t made a difference in team dynamic or performance,” Garrett said. “Our younger players stepped up immediately on the court because that is what our team needed, and our older players have given them the environment to feel comfortable doing so. With such a small team, you tend to not notice age difference because you can connect with each player personally.”

In its second match of the day, Tufts downed Springfield in three sets: 25–18, 26–24, 25–19. Though the Jumbos found themselves playing from behind in the second and third sets, they pulled through thanks to a match-high 15 kills from junior outside hitter/opposite Mackenzie Bright. Nwankpa and Stewart each added eight. 

When asked about the team’s strategy this season, Bright explained that the team has prioritized playing a high energy style.

“[We] make sure we stay focused on the game we play next, not games we’ve played in the past and not games we will play in the future,” she said.

Garrett also suggested that the Jumbos’ resilience stems from a healthy acknowledgement that they can’t always be perfect. In fact, the Allendale, N.J. native believes that the Jumbos’ relaxed and reactive style of play has been crucial to their success.

“Our biggest weakness was perfection. We found that even the best teams aren’t perfect, so we can’t always expect it of ourselves,” Garrett said. “I’m not saying that we don’t push ourselves to be better because we will always do that the second we step foot in the gym, but our practices and games have been focused more so around staying loose and remembering your roots and why you played the game in the first place.”

Acker agreed. Younger teams often feel more pressure to show that they can be competitive, but instead the Jumbos have taken the opposite approach. With strong team chemistry and a fun-loving attitude, Acker and the other first-years have felt at home.

“The team dynamic is great. We constantly strive to build each other up and and have fun,” she said. “The upperclassmen are so welcoming and are always there if we need anything.”

The familial atmosphere is not lost on first-year outsider hitter/opposite Jordan Kron, either.

“The sophomores, juniors and our senior have been there for all of us as a support system. They are constantly encouraging us and made us feel at home right from the start of the season,” she said.

With only one weekend of regular season play remaining, Tufts will go on the road to face Conn. College on Friday night and Wesleyan on Saturday. The trip may be a very rewarding one, as the Jumbos have an opportunity to wrap up NESCAC regular season play with a perfect 10–0 record.

Garrett maintains that the best way to finish will be to stay levelheaded, seeing each match as an individual opportunity. Only when it’s all said and done can the Jumbos look back and be proud of their broader accomplishments this season.

“We set big goals at the beginning of the season, just as any team would, but those tend to get pushed to the back burner as we focus on the present moment,” Garrett said. “We figure the little goals we set will evolve into larger goals, eventually sitting right in front of us for the taking.”