Volleyball competes at tough New England Challenge, drops first match of season

Senior middle/opposite hitter Heather Holz hits the ball during a match against Springfield College on Oct. 18. Julia McDowell for Tufts University

Tufts volleyball (19–1) concluded its weekend with a bounce-back win Saturday by earning a 3–1 victory over the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Engineers (20–6), showing the resilience and strength that has put them on the path to success the entire season. For the Jumbos, it was all about taking it one game at a time, just as they had always done.

For coach Cora Thompson, senior outside/opposite hitters and co-captains Brigid Bell and Maddie Stewart alongside junior middle/opposite hitter and co-captain Jen Ryan, and the rest of this historic team, the focus is on the future, with a long road of tournaments ahead of them.

The 3–1 win over the Engineers was one of three matches the Jumbos had this weekend as the New England Challenge, a notoriously challenging event, took place on Friday and Saturday. The team’s second match of the challenge was against the No. 17 Babson Beavers, who came into the game with an impressive 21–1 record. The match was a tenacious, back-and-forth affair that saw two great teams battle it out on the court. The first set saw Babson take an eventual 19–12 lead. But with the Jumbos on the back foot, they fought their way back to 21–21. A few key kills from the Beavers saw the Jumbos drop their first set since Sept. 21, 25–23.

The second set produced more of the same, with the teams going back and forth until the set was tied at 21–21. This time, the Jumbos would come out on top, winning an extremely tight second set 28–26.

The third and fourth sets followed the same trends as the first and second, with the third taken by the Beavers, 25–14, and the fourth taken by the Jumbos, once again in an extremely tight manner, 28–27. This would set up a match-deciding fifth set, but the task became too much as the Jumbos dropped the set 15–10 and lost their first match of the season.

Following the loss against Babson, Bell reflected on how the team was able to come back strong and eventually defeat MIT.

“While we may not have gotten the outcome we wanted against Babson, as I said before, our team has been very process-driven this year, and this setback will only challenge us to improve,” Bell wrote in an email to the Daily. “I think a big piece of being able to come back strong against MIT was our focus on the present match and play one point at a time.”

Thompson added on to Bell’s comments, expressing her view on what led to the team’s first defeat of the season against the Beavers in an email to the Daily.

“We simply committed too many unforced errors and against solid teams like Babson, you won’t find much forgiveness,” Thompson said.

The No. 14 Tufts volleyball team opened the weekend’s play as it honored its seniors as it continued the school-wide Homecoming celebration, earning a 3–0 victory over Springfield College. The game saw a packed crowd of over 200 in attendance for the game.

From the warmups onwards, the Jumbos had an energy that the Pride struggled to keep up with. The first few points of the first set saw many long rallies, but behind key digs, Tufts ultimately took the points, setting the tone for the rest of the set. With each point that the Jumbos won, the bench went crazy, celebrating and feeding a level of positivity that spread within the team.

“Controlling momentum swings with our positive and collective team-first mindset is key,” Thompson said. “If we can recover from a point scored against us quickly and then on the flip side capitalize on our positive momentum by scoring consecutive points…we will play more aggressively and see consistent results.”

Behind key kills from senior middle/opposite hitter Christina Nwankpa, who followed up her strong performance last week with a nine-kill performance Friday, and Stewart, who had eight kills herself, the Jumbos’ energy led to an early 13–8 lead and they never looked back, winning the first set 25–16.

The second set of the night proved to be a bit trickier than the first. The Pride had reinvigorated energy that resulted in a few errors from the Jumbos, giving Springfield an early 7–6 lead.

With their first lead of the match and the ball in their hands, Springfield produced a service error, letting go of an opportunity they would never have back. The Jumbos eventually turned their 7–6 deficit to a 17–10 lead behind the strong defense from Bell. With a mix of power and guile on their attack, the Jumbos won the set comfortably 25–14.

The third set saw a bit more of the same from the previous sets and saw the same trends that have been a staple of their season. The players’ high energy once again got Tufts off to a fast start, putting the team up 7–2 to open the set. After some back and forth, Tufts trusted its play and won the third and final set 25–16.

Following the Friday night win, which came on Senior Night for the Jumbos, Bell wrote in an email to the Daily about her team’s chemistry in this historic season, which is on track to be one of the best seasons in Tufts Volleyball history.

“I can’t say enough about the positive team energy we’ve had this year,” Bell said. “We’ve been really fortunate to have fantastic team chemistry and girls who are bought into our collective team goals.”

Sadly, this game represented the nearing of an end of an era for senior setter/opposite hitter Rachel Furash, Bell, Nwankpa, senior middle/opposite hitter Heather Holz and Stewart as they were honored for the night. The Cousens gym was decorated with blue and brown streamers and posters filled with jokes and memories the team has shared throughout the season.

Thompson had a lot of praise and gratitude for the work and leadership the seniors have put in this season.

“These 5 seniors are all incredibly talented players but more impressively…incredibly young women who have proven to be great leaders,” Thompson said. “They are all passionate, competitive and driven which has given our younger players a force to get behind.”

Ultimately, Thompson needed just three words to describe her feelings about this group.

“Proud and thankful,” Thompson said.

The timing and scheduling of the night meant a lot to the seniors as well it represented something larger than just the season at hand, but rather their careers as a whole.

“I think that for all of the seniors, Friday was a really fantastic opportunity for us to bring our four years with the Tufts Volleyball team full circle,” Bell said. “We played Springfield College our [first year] for senior night so it felt like we really brought our four years with the team to a fitting conclusion, although hopefully we still have a whole lot of ball left to play this season.”