Tufts opposite hitter Christina Nwankpa, '20, attacks the ball during Tufts' 3–0 win against Amherst on Nov. 4. (Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily)

Championship game ends in heartbreak for volleyball, still headed to NCAA Tournament

The Tufts volleyball team hosted the NESCAC tournament this past weekend, with aims to finish what they could not last year, as they lost in the championship game. The Jumbos entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed for the second year in a row, after finishing the season with a 10–0 record in NESCAC play. After decisive victories in both the quarterfinals and semifinals, the team was taken down by No. 2 seed Wesleyan in the championship game. Coach Cora Thompson expressed that the Jumbos were well aware that they would face tough competition in the tournament, and entered ready to battle.

Every time we step on the court, we have another opportunity to improve our game,” Thompson told the Daily in an email.  “[The NESCAC] tournament is always so competitive and full of teams who on any given day can compete for the title so we knew we were going to have to put forth our very best mentally and physically.”

On Friday, the team opened NESCAC tournament play against No. 8 seed Bates. The Bobcats climbed to an early lead in the first set at 8–3, but once the Jumbos got going, they took control. Tufts won the set with a decisive 25–16 scoreline. The team stormed into the second set, taking the lead until Bates tied it up at 15 all. Tufts and Bates exchanged points from then on, but Tufts regained enough control to end the second set in victorious fashion, with a score of 25–23. The Bobcats stole the third set, winning with a score of 25–23, putting pressure on the Jumbos. However, Tufts played a strong fourth set to defeat Bates with a set score of 25–19, and a match score that favored Tufts 3–1.

In the semifinal matchup Saturday, Tufts faced No. 5 seed Amherst. Tufts conceded the lead in the opening moments of the first set, but climbed back to win the set with a score of 25–22. The second set mirrored the first, as the Mammoths once again took an early lead. The Jumbos battled their way back from a 12–6 deficit, to secure the victory with a 25–21 score. The Jumbos ran away with the third set, earning a 25–15 score, and swept the Mammoths with a match score of 3–0. Regarding the team’s victories Friday and Saturday, Thompson shared that Tufts focused on playing the volleyball that got them so much success throughout the season.

It is much harder to beat good teams the second time around so we were prepared to play a different version of our opponents,” Thompson said. “We knew full well that [our opponents] would make strategic adjustments since the last time we played them and we were prepared. However, on our end we really wanted to focus on competing as the best version of ourselves while staying true to the game plans and strategies that earned us the [No. 1] seed in the first place.”

On championship Sunday, Tufts faced a foe the team had played only a week prior: Wesleyan. The team had defeated Wesleyan in its recent match on Oct. 28, with a score of 3–1 to secure the top seed of the NESCAC tournament. But the tables turned Sunday, and the Cardinals were the ones celebrating this time. Tufts was victorious in the first set, notching a 25–22 score and taking the early lead in the match. However, from that point on, it was all the Cardinals. Junior outside hitter Mackenzie Bright explained that the team struggled to respond to alterations Wesleyan made during the match.

“On Sunday, we had a very good first game,” Bright said. “Then Wesleyan made a lot of adjustments to what we were doing, and we honestly just had a hard time adjusting back. I think on Friday and Saturday we were a lot more flexible with our game plan.” 

Wesleyan went on to win the second set, 25–23, and then the third set 25–17. Heading into the fourth set, the Jumbos trailed the Cardinals 2–1 in match score. While Tufts began the fourth set with a spark, with the score tied at 11, Wesleyan began to run away with the set. The Cardinals secured the fourth set with a score of 25–14, thereby taking down the Jumbos with a match score of 3–1. Thompson noted that the match came down to well executed performance.

This match was about execution,” Thompson said. “Having played each other so recently, major adjustments across the net were not likely. Ultimately, this was going to be a game of execution and mental endurance. The team that stayed in system the most while taking care of the ball would end up on top. Unfortunately, Wesleyan was in system and executed better than us earning the win.”

While the tournament ended in heartbreaking fashion for Tufts, the team’s spectacular season earned Tufts its ninth NCAA berth with an at-large invitation to the tournament. This is the team’s third trip to the tournament in the last four years. Last year, Tufts made it to the quarterfinals where the team was defeated by Southwestern University in Texas. The Jumbos will open tournament play against the University of Massachusetts-Boston in a NCAA regional hosted by Johnson & Wales University. Thompson shared that the team’s focus is now on what lies ahead.

“We are incredibly excited and thankful for the opportunity to keep our season going,” Thompson said. “We are looking forward to playing this weekend against some great opponents. We know UMASS well and will be prepared for any of the teams we cross over with. At this point, we want to stay loose, have fun and really enjoy the process of working together towards our ultimate goal. Sure we are disappointed in the outcome of the conference tournament, but it was one match and overall we have had an incredible season. [Monday] we were ready to turn the page and focus on our next challenge.”

And so the Jumbos charge on.

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