Volleyball earns 4 wins to start season

Senior middle hitter Christina Nwankpa prepares for the kill during Tufts' 3–0 win against Amherst on Nov. 4, 2017. Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily Archives

Tufts volleyball is off to a very strong start to its 2019 season. Over the past few days, the Jumbos earned four wins in an impressive undefeated opening run.

In their third and final game of the Coast Guard/Conn. College tournament on Saturday, which was hosted in New London, Conn., the Jumbos capped off a show-stopping weekend run by beating Coast Guard 3–0 (29–27, 25–20, 25–14). Going into extra points, the first set was a serious challenge for both teams. Ultimately, after tying with Coast Guard many times, the Jumbos were triumphant, winning set one by a score of 29–27. The second set started similarly tight in nature, with both teams tying several times. However, a combination of kills from senior co-captain and outside hitter/opposite Maddie Stewart and senior middle hitter/opposite Christina Nwankpa, alongside a few errors made by Coast Guard, handed the set over to Tufts (25–20). The Jumbos controlled the third set (25–14) and sealed the game with a final score of 3–0. In just three days, the Jumbos tallied in four wins, while Coast Guard dropped to 5–3 for the season. 

Earlier that day, Tufts battled DeSales University, where the Jumbos won a decisive 3–0 victory over the Bulldogs (25–16, 25–10, 25–19). Stewart exhibited a top-tier performance delivering two digs, three blocks and a team-leading eight kills. Other noteworthy players were Nwankpa with seven kills, junior co-captain and middle hitter/opposite Jennifer Ryan with six kills and senior middle hitter/opposite Heather Holz with six kills. Although one of the Bulldogs’ players clocked seven kills, it was not enough to conquer the Jumbos, and DeSales dropped to 3–4 for the season. 

Junior outside hitter/opposite Sophia Acker wrote in an electronic message sent to the Daily that, while it is routine to play more than one game, fatigue did affect the team’s performance.

“Our team was able to play good volleyball despite being tired in our second match on Saturday,” Acker wrote. “Playing multiple matches per day is part of the game and something we have to get used to as we will have many double-headers this season. Our bench was key in keeping our energy and communication high, which allowed us to maintain our level of play even as our bodies got tired.”

Tufts faced off against Roger Williams University on Friday, who put up a good fight. All three sets were within a five-point spread (25–21, 25–22, 25–20). Nevertheless, the performance of many Jumbo players — namely, senior co-captain and outside hitter/opposite Brigid Bell’s nine kills and sophomore outside hitter/opposite Cate Desler‘s two service aces — directly contributed to their 3–0 victory. The victory was the second consecutive one for the Jumbos, putting them up 2–0 for the season while dropping Roger Williams to 0–4.

Stewart praised her team’s outstanding performance at the Coast Guard/Conn. College tournament.

“At the Conn. tournament, we competed hard and played well against solid region opponents,” Stewart wrote in an electronic message sent to the Daily. “I am proud of our effort and our commitment to continuous improvement, clear communication and staying in the present moment.”

Last Wednesday, the Jumbos fought hard to win a 3–2 match against Emerson College at home in Cousens Gymnasium. The season opener went into five sets (22–25, 25–18, 25–21, 23–25, 15–7). Throughout the entire game, both teams exhibited enthusiasm with cheers after each point and were eager to return to the court during set transitions. During the first set, Tufts and Emerson were neck-and-neck, tying the score a total of 15 times. Both teams displayed remarkable acts of serious talent. Many Tufts seniors, including Bell, Nwankpa and Holz, executed at least one kill in the first set. Stewart carried out the most kills on her team in the set with six, while Emerson’s junior outside hitter Grace Tepper and first-year setter Caroline Bond combined for a total of nine kills.

The two teams were competing closely once again in the second set until the score reached 6–6, whereupon Emerson began to make several errors in its service and attack. As a result, the Lions began to lose momentum. Tufts’ Desler delivered two fiery aces, stretching the Jumbos’ lead to 13–7. Emerson was behind nine points at one point during the second set (22–13), which was the largest point deficit in the game. To Emerson’s detriment, its errors further accumulated, which resulted in a set loss of 25–18.

The Jumbos had a slight advantage over their opponent in the third set, gaining a couple of points early on. The Jumbos at net, including Holz and Nwankpa, demonstrated tenacious defense, blocking more than a few of the Lions shots. Emerson’s Tepper did carry out two kills while the Jumbos made a few errors, which tightened the game up in a two-point spread (23–21). Nevertheless, the deft touch of Nwankpa carried out a final kill, and the Jumbos sealed up the set 25–21.

The last two sets were a roller coaster for the Jumbos. Attack errors began to stack against the Jumbos and continued throughout the fourth set. Emerson, eager for a break, received a victory in the fourth set, winning 25–23. In volleyball, the fifth set, unlike the first four sets, is played to 15 points. The Jumbos had to gauge in and put in everything they had, as the limited set leaves little room for error. Fortunately for the Jumbos, Tepper and a couple of her teammates made several attack errors. The Jumbos ultimately found their way ahead for the rest of the set, winning 15–7 and sealing the match over the Lions.

Coach Cora Thompson offered some insight into the team’s mentality and morale throughout the game.

“Emerson was a tough battle for sure,” Thompson wrote in an electronic message to the Daily. “They played relentless defense and kept the pressure on throughout all five sets. It was a solid early challenge that showcased this team’s grit. There were a lot of jitters, and we had to work out more than a few kinks, which is typical for first matches, but we worked through it to earn the W.”

The Emerson game marked a career-high 18 kills for Stewart. She wrote in a message about how her team enabled her to accomplish her kills.

“A kill can only happen if there is a great pass and set,” Stewart wrote. “So, my success against Emerson is due entirely to our defense that kept us in the system and our setters who work hard to get our hitters great looks when attacking.”

The Jumbos, off to a roaring 4–0 start, have all the reason to look forward to the next slate of matches. The team will play against Endicott College on Friday at the first round of the MIT Invitational. They will face Rochester Institute of Technology on Saturday at 10 a.m., followed by Wellesley later in the day.

Thompson spoke about what lies ahead for her team.

“More than anything, we are really looking forward to bettering our game,” Thompson wrote in an electronic message to the Daily. “All three teams are traditionally tough teams, and we will need to be efficient with our movements and smart with the ball to earn our points. We respect the skill sets of our opponents and want to play the best teams we can find so this will be a great opportunity. It all comes down to our serve and pass game ultimately, so we will work hard to be the best ball control team we can be this weekend.”