At UAA, Chicago looks to continue landmark year

To reach the championship match, Maroons have to get through a round robin including Carnegie, Brandeis, and defending-national champion Emory.

By Audrey Henkels

[img id=”77974″ align=”alignleft”]

They’ve got their 25 wins. The winning record is in the bag. At this point, the only question left for volleyball is: How much further can they go?

The answer is coming soon. Volleyball (25–12, 4–3 UAA) hosts the 2009 UAA Championships today and tomorrow, and all eight conference squads will be on hand to fight it out for the coveted automatic NCAA berth that is the reward for a UAA tournament win.

As second-year outside hitter Isis Smalls puts it, “The best way to describe our feelings towards the UAA Championships this weekend is that we are pumped.”

“Everything boils down to this weekend for us,” Smalls continued.

The tournament consists of two four-team round robins, each of which whittles out a winner to play in Saturday’s championship match. The teams are seeded and distributed into the round robins based on their performance in regular season UAA play; this year’s Maroons enter as the three seed.

“Our goal is to hold our number three seeding, if not go higher,” head coach Vanessa Walby said. “[If we did that] it would be the first time since 1996 that the team would have a top three finish in the UAAs.”

The Maroons (25–13) begin play at noon today against Carnegie (16–11, 3–4), a team that beat them in a five-set nail-biter earlier this season. Then at 4 p.m., Chicago meets Brandeis (17–13, 1–6), who they beat in four sets when the teams played three weekends ago.

“Personally, I’m looking forward to playing Carnegie Mellon the most,” third-year outside hitter Kossnar said. “The last time we played them this year was a heartbreaker. Now it’s time for revenge.”

After playing twice today, Chicago will close out the round robin portion of the tournament tomorrow with a game against Emory (30–5, 6–1). The Eagles are only seeded second in the conference, despite being the defending national champions and sitting fourth in the national rankings.

“I predict it will be a real battle against Emory,” Walby said. “But we’re taking each game as a challenge—so our first challenge is against Carnegie. We’re trying to take one game at a time.”

Wash U (25–3, 7–0), which is ranked third nationally, beat Emory during the regular season and has the top seed as a result. The Bears begin the tournament in a round robin opposite that of Chicago and Emory; they’ll be the favorite to win that round robin and vie for the championship with whichever team emerges victorious from Chicago’s half.

If Chicago doesn’t make the championship, they’ll still play tomorrow afternoon in the third, fifth, or seventh place match, depending upon how they fare in their opening round robin. But missing the championship game will knock the Maroons out of contention for the UAA’s automatic bid to the NCAAs. Instead, they would have to wait and hope for one of the 19 at-large bids given out by the selection committee.

Should the Maroons not qualify for the NCAAs, this will be their last competition of the year.

One of the most intriguing parts of the UAA tournament is that it allows all eight teams in the conference a shot at an NCAA bid. At this point, regular season records are out the window, and at least in concept, a team that went 0–7 in conference play has the same chance at the postseason as a team that went 7–0.

“Anyone can come out on top and make it to the postseason—and I expect us to be a team that comes out on top,” Kossnar said.

In some other UAA sports with automatic NCAA bids, like soccer and basketball, regular season records are the deciding factor, and most teams are totally out of contention well before the final weekend of play.

In practice, volleyball isn’t much more evenhanded: In 22 years, Wash U has won the conference 19 times. But at least there’s hope, and that hope, coupled with the high level of play in the UAA, should make for an interesting weekend on the hardwood.

“It will be a tough tournament and spectators will get to see some great rallies, defense, and big swings,” Walby said. “If they’ve never watched volleyball before, it will be a great chance to open their eyes.”

“It should be a good break from midterms studying and paper writing,” she added.