In the Gateway City of St. Louis, Mo., preparing for its NCAA “Elite Eight” match, Tufts volleyball (21–5) is putting together a historic season with hopes of extending it even longer. Today, they will face the University Wisconsin–Eau Claire (32–3), two wins away from a National Championship appearance. For those who haven’t been following the Jumbos’ riveting run of form, here’s a quick recap:
Posting an 8–2 record in NESCAC regular season play, Tufts held the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament. After beating Williams in three sets, Tufts dropped the semifinal match to Wesleyan, the team who gave Tufts its first loss of the season earlier this year. With a record of 18–5, the Jumbos received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament where they played matches against the Eastern University Eagles, SUNY Cortland Red Dragons, and the Johns Hopkins University Blue Jays over a span of three days.
In the first round, Tufts took on Eastern, who entered the match at 24–5. A young and energetic team, the Eagles sent out a starting lineup consisting of five first-year players and one sophomore. Despite the lack of tournament experience, Eastern emerged successful out of the gates, stretching the lead to eight points early in the first set. Facing a large deficit early on didn’t unnerve the Jumbos, who have experienced their share of adversity this season.
“We honestly were all so composed on the court, which can be hard to do when you get down by a lot,” junior outside/opposite hitter Jennelle Yarwood said.
Down 11–3 at one point, the Jumbos narrowed the gap to 12–8. After a few small service runs and a pinpoint kill off of the tape, junior outside/opposite hitter Maya Lightfoot made it 23–20 in favor of Tufts on her fifth kill of the set. Tufts went on to take this set, as well as the second, where they forced Eastern into nine errors. After prevailing in a back-and-forth third set, Tufts advanced to play Cortland on Saturday.
Deadlocked at three points apiece, the Jumbos unloaded a 21–5 run that was finished off by an ace from sophomore setter Maddie Yu, who after the weekend, leads the team in aces at 36. Although there were more sets to be played, the Jumbos were brimming with a confidence which carried them through the next two sets. Facing Cortland, who went undefeated in conference play, head coach Cora Thompson emphasized having a handle on the speed of the game.
“Our game plan was to go out there and control the tempo, the pace and the energy and I think that’s exactly what we did,” Thompson said after the game.
The Jumbos controlled all three sets and came out on top with help from Yarwood, who led all players with 13 kills.
On Sunday, Tufts matched up against the No. 1 ranked team in the country, Johns Hopkins. Prior to the game, Johns Hopkins had held a 66-game winning streak, breaking the previous NCAA Div. III volleyball record for consecutive wins at 60. Even more impressive, the Blue Jays had not lost a game on their home court since Oct. 27, 2016. Having beaten Trinity (Texas) earlier this year, who was ranked third at the time, this Jumbos team would not be overwhelmed.
“We’ve played a lot of good teams this season, they [were] just another good team,” said Yarwood.
This was not just another game for Yarwood — she led the Jumbos with 12 kills, with senior outside/opposite hitter and co-captain Cate Desler close behind, chipping in 11. Yarwood also had a career-high seven aces against Johns Hopkins, bringing her total to 10 on the weekend. The Jumbos have had success holding serve throughout their run, which can be attributed to their depth at the service line.
“That’s one of the things we take great pride in, not having one good server, but having six, seven, eight great servers,” Thompson said after defeating Hopkins in four sets. Tufts now has seven players with at least 13 aces on the year.
Thompson will line up with her team against its next opponent, University of Wisconsin Eau–Claire, on this afternoon as the Jumbos will hope to prolong what has already been a season to remember.
“I’m just so proud of this crew,” Thompson said following the regional championship win. “I’m so proud of how hard we’ve worked to stick to our game plan.”