Volleyball season comes to a close with wrenching loss to MIT

Tufts setter Rachel Furash, '20, serves the ball during Tufts' 3-0 win against Amherst on Nov. 4. (Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily)

The Tufts volleyball team’s season came to an abrupt end on Saturday, as it fell to the No. 18 MIT Engineers (30–3) in the second round of the NCAA regional tournament. After a 3–0 victory over the UMass-Boston Beacons (15–6) on Friday afternoon, the Jumbos dropped Saturday’s match to the Engineers in five sets, ending the season with a 23–7 record.

The match against MIT was perhaps one of the closest in program history, featuring three sets decided by just two points, with two of them requiring extra points. The first set had a few early runs that saw MIT take a 10–5 lead, but after Tufts tied it at 12, neither team led by more than two points. Four consecutive late kills by MIT’s junior outside hitter Abby Bertics keyed a 25–23 first-set victory and a 1–0 lead.

Tufts managed to flip the script in the next two sets, however, winning the second by a wide margin (25–13) thanks to seven MIT errors and strong serving by a number of players, including sophomore setter/opposite Rachel Furash and sophomore outside hitter/opposite Brigid Bell. The Jumbos won the third set 25–19 on the strength of their offense. Of the team’s 18 third-set kills, six came from sophomore outside hitter/opposite Maddie Stewart.

The fourth set was without a doubt the most thrilling of the match. MIT jumped out to an early six-point advantage, but Tufts slowly chipped away, eventually tying the score at 18. Thanks to important kills by Bell and Stewart, the Jumbos then managed to pull ahead for a 24–22 lead, one point away from closing out the match. MIT responded, however, staving off elimination five separate times. Finally, the Engineers recorded three straight kills — one by Bertics and two by senior middle hitter Alli Davanzo — to capture the set, 30–28.

Whether it was fatigue or psychological deflation after the drawn-out fourth set, the Jumbos were off target in the decisive fifth set. The team recorded just three kills while committing seven errors and ultimately dropping the set 15–10.

“It was tough to have our season come to an end after such a tough and gutsy battle with MIT, but I was incredibly proud of our girls for giving it all they had,” coach Cora Thompson said. “At this point in the season, there is little margin for error as everyone is a great team battling to keep their season alive and very few points are given away. Our match against MIT was one of the tightest this program has played in quite sometime and we were tested [on] every point by a very tough team.”

Bertics dominated the game for MIT, recording a monstrous 31 kills in the match, nearly half of the team’s total. Another 16 Engineer kills came from Davanzo, while junior middle hitter/right side hitter Carly Staub led the team in blocks.

Bell led the Jumbos with 18 kills to go along with 17 digs, while junior setter Angela Yu dished out 34 assists. Sophomore libero Kelly Klimowho was recently named to the All-NESCAC First Team — led the team in digs, as she often does, with 20. Stewart posted 13 kills, while sophomore middle hitter/opposite Heather Holz paced the Jumbos with five blocks.

It was also the final match in the career of senior defensive specialist Alex Garrett, who was a two-year captain for the Jumbos.

“I don’t look at Saturday as a failure,” Garrett said. “We adjusted to the changes MIT was making throughout the game, and we continuously ran our toughest hitting patterns, played relentless defense and served aggressively. MIT just played a more flawless game. There isn’t much I can say that we could’ve changed.”

Klimo echoed the sentiments of her captain in giving credit to Tufts’ opponents.

“MIT played a great match,” she said. “They’re a strong team and a fierce competitor, and they came out on top this time. I think we played well as a unit and just weren’t able to get on top.”

Before advancing to play MIT on Saturday, Tufts faced off against UMass-Boston on Friday in a match that the Jumbos swept, 3–0. The score did not reflect fully the true nature of the game, however, which included two sets in which the Jumbos came from behind to win. None of the three sets were decided by more than six points.

Nonetheless, it was a valuable win that gave Tufts momentum and confidence to begin the national tournament. Stewart and junior outside hitter Mackenzie Bright speared the offensive effort with eight kills each. Klimo led the team with 18 digs and she, along with a front line that blocked well, anchored the Jumbos’ defense, which held the Beacons to just a 0.137 kill percentage.

“UMass-Boston is always one of our toughest competitors,” Garrett said. “We worked hard all week in practice on the game plan that would put us in the best position to perform, and we remained consistent and controlled with our play the whole game, allowing us to maintain composure in the crucial points.”

Following an elite eight appearance in the Div. III national tournament last season, Tufts had great expectations for this season. After sweeping through the NESCAC undefeated in the regular season, the team fell short in the conference tournament finals against the Wesleyan Cardinals (22–6). Despite a similar conclusion to their NCAA tournament experience, the Jumbos are even more battle-tested, experienced in big moments and familiar with adversity.

The challenge of following up an elite eight season can be that if you don’t repeat, it can feel as though you failed or the season was less of a success,” Thompson said. “But [that] couldn’t be further from the truth. To go undefeated in [the] NESCAC regular season is incredibly challenging. This team pulled it off for the second year in a row. We were also consistently ranked in the top five in New England. That is something to be incredibly proud of.”

Next season, the Jumbos will have to adjust to the loss of Garrett, who totaled 38 kills and 269 digs over the course of the 2017 season. Apart from her reliable back-row attacking, the team will also miss her tough serving and strong defense.

“She has been fantastic since probably the day she walked into this gym … as a lone senior and a lone captain,” Bright said. “That’s a hard thing to do and she did an amazing job. It’s gonna be really hard to lose her. She’s a big personality and a really big part of our team.”

Garrett also took a moment to reflect on her career and the team’s prospects moving forward.

“They’re only losing one player, so they will get to build off each other even more in years to come,” she said. “Playing around the same people and having gone to the places they have been, they will be able to grow together and perfect playing alongside each other.”

Despite the challenge of losing Garrett, Tufts already has its foundation in place for next year, with three current juniors and eight sophomores poised to assume greater roles. Additionally, Thompson earned Coach of the Year for the second straight season (and sixth time overall) thanks to the team’s undefeated NESCAC campaign.

“The future is bright thanks to … the hard work and drive of this current group,” Thompson said. “It was an honor to take this journey with them this season and I am so proud of everything they accomplished individually and as a team.”

While Garrett was the backbone of the team, its on-court dominance was led by its First-Team All-NESCAC honorees: Klimo (her second straight year making an All-NESCAC team) and Bright, who had a breakout season, ranking third in the NESCAC in kills (306). Despite the sting of losing in the postseason, the junior is already optimistic about next season.

“We came off a year going to the elite eight, so the loss [to MIT] hurt because we had high expectations,” Bright said. “But it’s just more fuel to a fire that we will return with next year.”