Volleyball records first win over Middlebury in NESCAC tournament, falls in semifinals

The Tufts volleyball team poses for a photo in celebration of its 3–0 Senior Night win over Conn. College on Oct. 26. Julia McDowell / The Tufts Daily

After a momentous victory against the Middlebury Panthers in the NESCAC quarterfinals, the Tufts volleyball season came to an end in a 32 loss to the undefeated Bowdoin Polar Bears. The Jumbos finished the 2018 season fifth in the NESCAC with a 6–4 record in conference and 16–10 overall.

Tufts traveled to Brunswick, Maine for the NESCAC tournament over the weekend. The Jumbos took on the first-seed Bowdoin Polar Bears on Saturday for a place in the NESCAC finals. While the Jumbos lost the match, they gave the Polar Bears a run for their money, taking the match to a deciding fifth set. In the first set, the Jumbos and the Polar Bears fought tooth and nail, tying the score 10 times throughout the set. However, at 14-all, Bowdoin scored four straight points and never looked back, as it ultimately edged ahead at the end of the set to put up a final score of 25–22.

Tufts made a spirited comeback during the second set, leading Bowdoin by eight midway through the match at 15–7. Bowdoin was able to narrow the gap, yet Tufts continued to rally to win the set 25–20 at the end through a kill from junior middle hitter Christina Nwankpa. The Jumbos continued to carry the momentum in the third set, winning the set by 12 points.

Bowdoin took an early lead in the fourth set, yet Tufts battled hard to lower the deficit. Kills from junior outside hitters Brigid Bell and Maddie Stewart led to a four-point rally midway through the set, moving the score from 12–7 to 12–11. The Polar Bears recovered to take an 18–12 lead, and while the Jumbos fought to stay in the set, they could not regain the lead, losing the set 25–21.

While the teams were tied at six in the fifth set, the Polar Bears edged ahead to put the score at 10–7. The Polar Bears continued to widen the gap, taking a 15–9 victory in the final set and winning the match 3–2. Despite their narrow loss, the Jumbos have nothing but respect for their competitors.

“Bowdoin played an excellent game, and we wish them the best in the NCAA tournament,” Stewart, who is also co-captain, told the Daily in an email.

A day prior, Tufts swept Middlebury 3–0 in the quarterfinals, overcoming a 3–1 defeat earlier in the season. This victory held a special significance for the Tufts volleyball program — prior to this season, the team had never beaten Middlebury during NESCAC tournament play.

The Jumbos shined offensively against the fourth-seeded Middlebury, collecting 10 service aces and posting a hitting percentage of .263. The Panthers trailed behind with a team hitting percentage of .137 and just three service aces. On the defensive end, the Jumbos had nine blocks and 42 digs while the Panthers had five blocks and 49 digs.

Most of the first set saw the Jumbos neck-and-neck with the Panthers, but the Jumbos were down two points late in the set at 18–16. The Jumbos built momentum to take a 20–18 lead before the Panthers fought back to tie the set at 21. After maintaining a tie at 25–25, a kill from Nwankpa placed the Jumbos back in the lead, putting the team in a position to secure the win with a score of 27–25 off a bad set by Middlebury’s junior setter Chellsa Ferdinand.

Tufts took an early lead in the second set, which it maintained by a narrow margin throughout the set. Middlebury was able to close the gap to two points late in the set, putting the score at 22–20. However, the Panthers couldn’t shake the Jumbos’ momentum, making a service error to give the ball back to the Jumbos. The Jumbos did not need a second invitation, as they went on to end the set with a service ace from junior setter Rachel Furash and kill from Stewart to seal the set 25–20.

The third set began tentatively with the Jumbos and Panthers taking turns in lead early on in the set. The teams tied the score at 11–11 before Bell changed the momentum of the set with two service aces. After breaking the tie, Tufts rapidly established a lead, gaining traction through stellar offense to eventually clinch the match with a 25–17 victory in the third set, as it boasted an impressive 16 kills with a hitting percentage of .556 on the set.

First-year opposite hitter and NESCAC Rookie of the Year Cate Desler led the team with eight kills, with Bell and Nwankpa following closely behind with seven.

Stewart said that the team’s preparation helped them achieve the program’s first NESCAC tournament victory over Middlebury.

We prepared well and executed our game plan,” Stewart said. “They are an excellent team and well-coached, so we were very happy to get a win.”

The end of the season is bittersweet for the team — while they will be sad to say goodbye to the 2018 season, the team has had many incredible experiences together that they will remember in years to come.

Senior outside hitter and co-captain Mackenzie Bright said that the Emory National Tournament and New England Challenge at MIT were highlights of the season.

“It has been an absolute privilege to play on this team for the last four years, and I truly wish I could do it all over again,” Bright told the Daily in an email. “I am going to miss this very … much.”