In the last warm-up competition before the biggest matches of the year, the last thing any team wants is a weekend of inconsistent play.
That’s exactly what volleyball got, however, as the Maroons (18–14) dropped three in a row at the Elmhurst Invitational before winning their last match of the weekend.
Starting slow on Friday, Chicago fell 3–0 to North Central (20–11), then lost another three-game sweep to Elmhurst (20–10). It marked the first time this year that the squad has suffered back-to-back shutouts.
Hoping for a better start Saturday, Chicago wound up with an unexpected 3–1 loss at the hands of UW–River Falls (13–19). Rebounding in their last chance for a win on the weekend, the Maroons pulled out a victory with a 3–2 decision against Wheaton (13–14).
The three-match losing streak was only the second time this season that the Maroons have dropped more than two decisions in a row, but it came at a critical time, as Chicago is gearing up for its most important event of the year, next weekend’s UAA Championship.
“We were pretty frustrated with our play at times this weekend,” fourth-year middle hitter Kerry Dornfeld said. “We had an opportunity to get some big wins, and for some reason we just couldn’t close. I know for a fact and from the beginning of the season we have the physical ability to beat these types of teams. We just had a lot of mental breakdowns.”
The weekend couldn’t have started worse for Chicago than it did against North Central. Attacking at a season low .087, the Maroons’ offense struggled to put points on the board as the Cardinals cruised to take the first set 25–13. Play improved as the games dragged on, but the South Siders still couldn’t stop a sweep as North Central took the next two games 25–19 and 25–21 to clinch the match.
Dealing with the same offensive problems against Elmhurst, Chicago watched typically reliable offensive stars like Dornfeld put up only a few kills and low attacking percentage numbers, allowing the Bluejays to take the first set, 25–17. Elmhurst won the next set 25–19, and a tough Chicago battle in the third set couldn’t prevent a loss in extra points, as the hosts took the match with a 28–26 win. The Maroons managed just 26 kills in the three games, and only Emory has kept them to a lower total in their five three-set losses this season.
“I think we played pretty tough against North Central and Elmhurst,” first-year outside hitter Colleen Belak said. “The scores don’t necessarily show that.”
After taking losses from two teams with solid records, UW–River Falls looked to be less of a challenge for the Maroons before Saturday’s match. The Falcons stormed out to take a 25–21 win, though, and kept things close in a second set 26–24 loss. Chicago struggled in a 25–15 loss to give the Falcons back the advantage and couldn’t force a tiebreaker as River Falls clinched 25–21 in the fourth game.
“Even though River Falls doesn’t have the best record, they are still a really good team,” Dornfeld said. “They are in one of the toughest conferences in the country, and they have a tradition of strong play. Once again, if we had focused more mentally, we could have taken them.”
Chicago had more statistical standouts in their second Saturday match, as the Maroons battled back and forth with Wheaton. Starting out in control of the match, the South Siders took their only first-game win of the weekend by a 25–17 margin. After fighting back for a 25–23 win in the second set, the Thunder showed life but were stifled again in the third as Chicago won 25–16. Wheaton then forced a fifth game with a 25–21 win, but the Maroons prevailed in the tiebreaker 15–9, notching their only victory of the weekend.
Dornfeld posted a career-high 20 kills in the win. First-year outside-hitter Isis Smalls had a double-double with 13 kills and 10 digs, and fourth-year setter Nikki Boddicker tallied 52 assists.
After averaging 5.13 digs per set on the weekend, Belak gained enough notice to be given a spot on the All-Tournament team after.
“I would not say we’re in a slump by any means,” Belak said. “We ended on a win, and now we’re focusing on practicing hard and preparing for the tournament.”
“The most important tournament of the year is our conference championships,” Dornfeld said. “So we will take the next week or two to get mentally refocused.”
Chicago will need all the focus it can get before the championship kicks off November 7. After earning the fourth-seed for the UAA tournament, the Maroons will have to face second-ranked Emory (25–3) in pool play early in the weekend. Fourth-ranked Wash U (22–5) also stands in Chicago’s way to a conference crown.