Volleyball wins NESCAC tournament, moves on to host NCAA regional

Senior outside/opposite hitter and co-captain Maddie Stewart hits the ball during a game against Springfield on Oct. 18. Julia McDowell for Tufts University

Over the weekend, while the winter season began to hit our own Tufts University, the volleyball team only began to warm up as they won their first NESCAC championship in over 20 years to cap off a historic season, setting them up for a long road in the postseason.

As holders of the NESCAC’s best record in the regular season, Tufts had the responsibility of hosting the entire tournament — allowing them to play all its tournament games on its home court.

The tournament came to a close on Sunday, where in front of a packed crowd of over 200, the Jumbos played in the final of the NESCAC tournament against the Bowdoin Polar Bears. Their match earlier in the year followed a similar trend as they beat them 3–0 on Sept. 27. However, this was a much-improved Bowdoin team as they came into Sunday’s final having won every match since the loss to Tufts, including the two in the NESCAC tournament, leaving them with an impressive 18–6 record overall prior to the final. The Polar Bears also won the NESCAC tournament in 2018, coming in determined to reclaim their crown.

From the get-go, it was clear what was in store for the afternoon. The Jumbos, as they always have, came out firing, as senior opposite/middle hitter Christina Nwankpa and sophomore outside/opposite hitter Cate Desler continued their impressive form to put the Jumbos up 7–2 at the very start of the set. Though they were able to keep a fair amount of distance from Bowdoin for the majority of the set, this Polar Bear team proved to be resilient, closing the gap to 21–19 in favor of the Jumbos toward the end of the set. Ultimately, the attack proved to be too much for Bowdoin as Tufts won the set 25–21, but it was clear that both teams were ready for a dog fight.

Through their blocking and blitzing offense, the Polar Bears gave the Jumbos a taste of their own medicine as they were up big by the middle of the second set. Senior outside/opposite hitter and co-captain Maddie Stewart wrote in an email to the Daily about Bowdoin’s reawakening in the second set.

“Bowdoin challenged us right back after we started strong in set one,” Stewart said. “They were in system offensively and we had to work very hard to not only defend them, but convert a solid transition dig into an in-system swing.”

Though the Jumbos were able to generate momentum and mount a comeback, they ultimately came up just short as the Polar Bears closed out the set with six straight points, giving Bowdoin the highly competitive and topsy turvy second set 25–18. The momentum would continue to swing in Bowdoin’s direction as they took the third set by a score of 25–20.

This left the Jumbos in a spot unfamiliar to them: they were losing. It had been nearly a month since they were last losing in a match, and through 28 matches, was only the fourth time they were in a losing position.

The fourth set remained close throughout; the Polar Bears took the lead early in the set, but it was clear that no one team possessed any control. The points were  long, enduring and grueling, with neither team wanting to lose. This was reflected in the set, which went back and forth until Tufts sparked a massive six-point run to create daylight between the two teams. The attack was versatile, reflecting the team spirit of this Jumbo squad, as the kills came from four different players during the run: Desler, senior middle/opposite hitter Heather Holz, senior setter/opposite hitter Rachel Furash and Stewart. Inspired by the historic run they had this year, the Jumbos were determined to not let this be their last day, as they closed out the set in emphatic fashion, winning the set 25–17.

Changes like these are not coincidences, and for the leaders of the team, it took a collective effort to regroup the team in order to win the fourth set, coach Cora Thompson explained in an email to the Daily.

“We started to play tight in the 2nd and 3rd sets and upon realizing that, the players adjusted and controlled their emotions and focused on executing our game plan,” Thompson said.

The fifth set proved to be the toughest of them all. The set embodied the nature of the match itself, as kills from Furash were canceled out by a mix of errors from Tufts and kills from Bowdoin. 

As the whirlwind of a set was coming to a close, the Jumbos were struggling to find a way to close this Bowdoin team out, leaving them at a pivotal 12–11 deficit towards the end of the fifth. But, in the wise words of Arya Stark, the Jumbos looked into the eyes of death and emphatically stated, “Not today,” keeping their cool to rattle off four of the last five points and win the set 15–13 with a monumental kill from none other than Stewart.

For Stewart, Thompson and the rest of the team, Sunday’s victory reflected a culmination of all the hard work they had put in throughout their historic season, and when it counted, their best play came out.

“They needed to stay loose and embrace the challenge without fear and that’s exactly what they did,” Thompson said.

On Saturday, in the semifinals of the tournament, the Jumbos faced off against the now 15–10 Middlebury Panthers, whom they had also beaten earlier in the season 3–0. This time, it was the double threat of Desler, who finished the game with 11 kills, and Nwankpa, a staple of the Jumbo attack, who finished the game herself with 12 kills. Once again, the Jumbos came out to make a strong statement, winning the first two sets 25–17 and 25–10, respectively. The third set was when it got a little trickier for the Jumbos, as they quickly saw their 7–3 lead turn into an 14–11 deficit behind a couple of errors. However, just as they had always done throughout the season, they kept their composure and trusted what had brought them there, winning the final set 25–20.

The campaign began on Friday night where Tufts’ first match was against the Hamilton Continentals (10–14). This was a team that Tufts had beaten earlier in the season, and Friday proved no different. Behind the strong attacking play of Stewart, who finished the game with 13 kills, the Jumbos jumped out to a fast start and were consistent throughout the match, always keeping the Continentals out of reach. The final score was 25–13, 25–14, 25–12: a statement to all their other NESCAC opponents.

Thompson knew that winning the tournament was never going to be easy.

“The NESCAC is the toughest conference tournament in New England top to bottom,” Thompson said. “Every team can pull off a win on any given day when they are playing for their seasons so we respected all of our opponents and had to bring our best game to the court all three nights.”

Up next, the Jumbos will play in the NCAA tournament where they will be facing the 17–6 Eastern Nazarene Lions of nearby Quincy, Mass. The game will be played right here in Cousens Gym on Friday night, as they look to take the next step on the road to a national championship.