Win number 13 isn’t usually a milestone for a team that has more than 30 matches in a season. But when volleyball (13–6) beat Purdue–North Central (11–15) in straight sets last Saturday, it was tough to overlook the significance of the occasion.
Thirteen wins are as many as the Maroons had in 2006 and 2007 combined,and more than the team has totaled in six of its last seven seasons. And there are still at least 14 matches left to play in 2008.
Judging by the results so far, this looks like an entirely new Chicago team, and in fact, it very nearly is. There’s a new head coach this season, one new assistant coach, and nine first-years on the fifteen-player roster. The 13–6 record is quite a turnaround for a program that has had a .39 winning percentage over the last decade.
“I expected the team to do well, but our success has exceeded my expectations by far,” first-year libero Liane Rousseau said.
And while there is plenty of credit to go around for the overhaul, much of it has to go to Rousseau and her rookie classmates, who came in and immediately began contributing to the team. First-year hitters Isis Smalls and Colleen Belak are first and third on the team in kills per set, respectively, and Rousseau herself leads the Maroons in digs per set.
“There are freshman on the court for us every set making the big plays, and we have come to expect that from them,” said assistant coach Jillian Kalvik, who is in her first year with the squad.
Beyond the numbers, the first-years have given Chicago a measure of depth and versatility that has been missing in recent years. Those features have, in turn, meant tougher scrimmages in practice and increased competition for playing time in matches.
“The energy and excitement that the freshman class has brought in was really refreshing for not only myself and Coach Walby, but for all of the returners and especially for the seniors,” Kalvik said. “There is a new energy and a new mentality on the team because of the first-year athletes.”
“I think that this year we have more confidence,” said fourth-year middle blocker Kerry Dornfeld, whose .395 attacking percentage leads the team and is good for 16th in all of DIII.
Injuries have also hamstrung Chicago in recent years, and in hopes of avoiding those troubles this year, the coaching staff lightened up the team’s preseason regimen.
“Because classes start so late we have an extremely long preseason compared to most intercollegiate volleyball teams, and we were careful not to overwork the girls before competition started,” Kalvik said. “We started competition healthy and ready to play, so I think it was a successful decision.”
But for all of the retooled Maroons’ early accomplishments, the real tests are still ahead of them in their conference schedule, which begins this weekend. The UAA is typically one of the most difficult conferences in D-III, featuring perennial powers like Wash U (11–4), Emory (16–3), and NYU (13–4), who Chicago plays Saturday in Pittsburgh. The Violets are often nationally ranked in the top 25, and Chicago has not won a match against them since 1998.
Tough as the Violets are, though, the Bears may prove to be the Maroons’ fiercest opponent of the year when Chicago faces them October 18 in Boston. Wash U has won 18 volleyball titles in the 21 years of the UAA, and their team won the national title last year—its ninth since 1989.
“The teams in the UAA are always our toughest competition, and that’s what makes it so fun,” said Dornfeld, who as a fourth-year knows how difficult UAA play can be: Chicago went 7–27 in UAA play during Dornfeld’s first three years on the team.
“I think we absolutely have the ability to do well in conference as long as we play consistent and play smart,” Dornfeld said.
Dornfeld isn’t alone in her optimism about the Maroons’ upcoming conference matches.
“Our expectation for UAA play is that we are going to play some of the best teams in D-III volleyball,” Kalvik said. “We expect that our girls are going to step up to the challenge and play good volleyball against those teams. We also expect that with a few more stellar recruiting classes and continued commitment by our athletes that we will become one of those teams as well.”