Reliving women’s volleyball’s NCAA Elite 8 run

The Tufts women's volleyball team celebrates its NCAA Regional Championship win on Nov. 14, 2021. Courtesy Johns Hopkins University Athletics

The players on the Tufts women’s volleyball team excitedly rushed to celebrate with tears in their eyes, exchanging hugs all around and forming an eventual Jumbo pile of winners on the court. The Brown and Blue had just won their NCAA Regional Championship against the No. 1 nationally ranked team and defending national champions, the Johns Hopkins University Blue Jays, in Maryland on Nov. 14. 

After a year hiatus from competitive play, the Tufts volleyball team came back strong with a final overall record of 21–6. Despite losing to the Wesleyan Cardinals in the NESCAC Championship Semifinals in a tough 3–2 (25–19, 25–27, 25–18, 19–25, 12–15) contest, the Jumbos received an at-large bid and made a run in the NCAA tournament. 

Sophomore setter and opposite hitter Rileigh Farragher said the season was a fun reintroduction to competitive play. 

“It was a super fun season because none of us had played in three years basically,” Farragher said. “We all wanted to go very far in the playoffs, obviously but didn’t realize what that meant until later. Once we started winning and got to regionals and were up against the No. 1 seed is when it kind of really set in. Then we beat [Johns Hopkins] and got super excited for everything else.”

Considering both the first-year and sophomore classes had yet to have played collegiate volleyball, the on-court team dynamic needed to be established essentially from scratch. Off-court team culture appeared to serve the Jumbos well for cohesion and dynamism throughout the season.

“We like to talk about team culture a lot when we are together and everyone likes to say that we’re like one big family,” Farragher said. “We all just really like each other, and we like playing together. When we’re in season especially, we all have the same goals [and] same mindset and we just make that super known.”

At the beginning of the season, the Jumbos were off to a hot start, winning their first six matches. The team’s first loss was served to Tufts by NESCAC opponent Wesleyan University on Sept. 18. This 3–2 loss started a small trend of hard fought five-set matches to come later in the season against Endicott College and Williams College. 

Tufts experienced a season turning point in its match against Trinity University (Texas) on Oct. 9. Despite Trinity’s being an accoladed program and a tough opponent, Tufts faced the team head on to take its first five-set victory and set the tempo for a winning streak that would continue until the end of its regular season. 

After losing to the Wesleyan Cardinals in the NESCAC Championship Semifinals, the Jumbos did not secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Div. III Volleyball Championship. However, the team’s strong record earned it an at-large bid into the tournament. The Jumbos, however, got a seemingly unfortunate draw, as the No. 1 seeded team in the country, the Blue Jays, were hosting the regional tournament that the Jumbos would be traveling to compete in.

Sophomore setter Maddie Yu commented on the miraculous Johns Hopkins win in the NCAA Championship Sweet 16. 

“I think we had won the first two sets and lost the third,” Yu said. “Instead of getting down on ourselves after that third set, we really pushed ourselves and we believed in ourselves. Rather than retreating back and playing scared, we came out and played a really clean game and then won it in four.”

Tufts advanced to the Elite 8 in St. Louis, Mo. and eventually lost to the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire on Nov. 18, the team that would later go on to win the NCAA National Championship. 

The program will lose senior outside hitter Cate Desler, senior setter Ariel Zedric and senior middle and opposite hitter Jennifer Ryan next season. The three players made huge contributions for the Jumbos, all as impactful starters in the majority of games during their careers. Desler led the team for the year in kills with a whopping 330. Zedric was second to Yu’s 530 with 479 assists on the season. Ryan was one of the team’s top leaders in hitting percentage with an impressive .331 on 275 total attempts. 

However, the majority of the roster are the sophomores and juniors, with seven sophomores and six juniors. Farragher commented on the large upperclassmen presence for next season. 

“We’ve got the biggest juniors and sophomores class, so I think it’s going to feel super familiar since there’s so many of us coming back and now we’re all going to be upperclassmen, which is going to put everyone in more of a leadership role,” Farragher said.

Junior outside hitter Jennelle Yarwood said the season gave their team good experience and motivated them for competitive seasons to come.

“While we didn’t do as well as we might’ve hoped, it was still just a really good experience and I feel like we learned a lot about ourselves as a team,” Yarwood said. “And we got to play the team that ended up winning the national championship so that was pretty cool. So I think it’s just made us really excited for next season.”