Volleyball enters final stretch with four-set loss to Middlebury

Senior outside hitter/opposite and co-captain Mackenzie Bright serves during Tufts' 3–1 win against Brandeis on Sept. 12. Julia McDowell / The Tufts Daily

Tufts fell short in a spirited NESCAC battle with Middlebury on Friday, ultimately losing 3–1 despite a mid-match rally. The Jumbos entered the road match third in the conference standings with an 11–7 overall record (5–2 conference), while the host Panthers sat just behind them with an 11–3 overall mark (4–2 conference). Following Middlebury’s loss to Bowdoin on Saturday, it is now tied with Tufts for fourth place in the conference, behind two undefeated teams in Wesleyan and Bowdoin as well as third-place Amherst. The Jumbos have five games left in the regular season before heading into the NESCAC Tournament, and they are looking to make the most of their remaining matches.

Middlebury took a quick lead in the first set, going up 12–3 early. While the Jumbos closed the gap to 15–9, the Panthers regained their momentum to capture the first set 25–15. The hosts again got off to a strong start in the second set, but the Jumbos battled back to narrow the score to 8–6. That proved to be the closest Tufts got, however, as Middlebury ran away with a 25–16 set victory.

The Jumbos came back with a vengeance in the third set, establishing a small but consistent lead from the outset. With the teams tied at 14, the Jumbos grabbed an 18–14 lead thanks to four straight points via first-year outside hitter/opposite Cate Desler and senior outside hitter/opposite and co-captain Mackenzie Bright. The Jumbos fought hard to ultimately grab a third-set victory, using their offensive strength to close with a 25–20 advantage.

After Tufts gained an early lead in the fourth set, Middlebury came from behind to tie the set at eight. The Panthers then rattled off the next three points to open an 11–8 lead, yet kills from Desler and sophomore middle hitter/opposite Jennifer Ryan pulled the Jumbos within one. However, Middlebury first-year outside hitter Jane Nelson and senior outside hitter Isabel Sessions proved to be too dominant. With Tufts down 22–15, junior libero Madison Clay served two straight aces, but Middlebury captured the fourth set 25–20 to win the match.

The Panthers finished the game with six blocks, 38 digs, five aces and a hitting percentage of .346,  while the Jumbos posted seven blocks, 35 digs, four aces and a hitting percentage of .200.

Coach Cora Thompson cited Middlebury’s strong service game as a main reason for Tufts’ loss.

“Middlebury challenged us to earn our points, and they did a great job of serving us out of system,” Thompson told the Daily in an email. “We need to have better ball control and win the serve and pass game. If we can pass the ball and be in system, our offense will be much harder to stop.”  

According to Thompson, the team has been working on improving its ball control in practice and will continue to do so throughout the rest of the season. Despite the outcome of the match, she was proud of the Jumbos’ efforts.

“We were very proud of our captains who tried hard to lead with their play,” Thompson said. “Bright stayed aggressive the whole night and [junior outside hitter and co-captain Maddie Stewart] really caught fire offensively coming up with a few really key blocks defensively, too.”

Thompson also identified Ryan as a key player for Tufts, noting that her critical blocks and hits contributed to the team’s win in the third set.

Bright led all players with a season-high of 17 kills, while Stewart posted 11 kills of her own. Desler was strong all-around, with 10 kills, six digs and three blocks. Meanwhile, on the defensive end, senior setter/defensive specialist Katie Zheng contributed six digs, while first-year setter/opposite Ariel Zedric and junior setter/opposite Rachel Furash each had five. Furnish also amassed an impressive 34 assists, and Zedric accumulated 10.

Despite the loss to Middlebury, Stewart remained hopeful that the team will be able to turn its fortunes around against Springfield on Friday.

We think that a mental reset with renewed energy and focus will help us win this upcoming week of games,” she told the Daily in an email.

Bright acknowledged that the Jumbos have a difficult schedule ahead, with three matches in two days this weekend at the New England Challenge, but believes they are ready to take it on.

We are looking forward to the opportunity to continue to improve together as a team,” Bright told the Daily in an email.

With the end of the season approaching, Thompson has high hopes for the final spate of games leading up to the postseason.

“We absolutely have the skill set to compete and win every match if we can stay disciplined and focused long enough,” she said.

Tufts will play three of its five remaining games at home, which Stewart noted has the team excited.

We love playing in Cousens [Gymnasium] and are excited to show what we’ve got on our home court,” she said.

After hosting Springfield on Friday night, Tufts will play a Saturday doubleheader against Babson and MIT with both matches at MIT.