It wasn’t a pristine finish to volleyball’s season, but a sixth-place showing at the UAA tournament this weekend has the Maroons two spots up from last year, with more reason for optimism in this young team’s future.
Chicago (19–17, 4–7 UAA) finished 1–3 on the weekend, defeating Rochester before falling to Brandeis (19–13, 5–5), Emory (30–6, 10–1), and Case (20–14, 5–6). Wash U (30–6, 10–1) won the conference title for the third time in five years.
“I don’t think our play really correlates with how we finished. I thought we played really well,” head coach Vanessa Walby said. “I don’t think we’re a team that people in the UAA are overlooking anymore like maybe they used to. I think they know that they’re going to get a tough, competitive match when they step on the floor with Chicago.”
The Maroons started pool play against eighth-seeded Rochester, a team looking to avoid its first winless conference season since 2002, when the Yellowjackets went 0–7.
Last season, the tournament’s seventh-place game came down to two winless teams in Chicago and Rochester. This year, however, the Maroons entered the day looking to distance themselves from the bottom, and a 25–21, 25–13, 25–20 win had the South Siders started on the right track.
Chicago’s October 19 meeting with Rochester saw the Maroons defeat the Yellowjackets in four games, but a more polished performance by Chicago gave way to the three-game sweep on Friday. Riding a .375 hitting percentage, the Maroons overpowered the Yellowjackets throughout the contest, outclassing a team whose last UAA win came on November 3, 2007.
“Our girls passed pretty well, we served aggressively at them, and offensively, we ran a lot of different combinations at them,” head coach Vanessa Walby said. “I think the girls were pretty excited to play and were pretty focused on playing, so I know that they tried to use that as a good match to prepare and get ready for Brandeis.”
Unable to carry the momentum into the second game, however, Chicago was stifled early against a defensively sharp Brandeis team, as the fifth-seeded Judges took the first two games of the afternoon.
“We were close with them the first few games, but we just weren’t able to close,” Walby said. “We started out with some deficits that were hard to dig ourselves out of. I think the girls did a good job of kind of regrouping and coming back; it’s really hard to come back when you’re down 2–0 and force a fifth game, and the girls did a great job of doing that and staying competitive.”
Chicago countered with strong defense of its own in the next two games, as four Maroons finished the game with at least 20 digs. First-year outside hitter Isis Smalls also set a team season-high in kills with 21.
Tying the game 2–2, the Maroons forced a back-and-forth fifth game, with neither team able to hold the momentum long enough to seal the win. Although Chicago had a few opportunities to finish the Judges, the game’s end came on a back-row attack violation called against the South Siders, closing out Brandeis’ 25–20, 25–19, 22–25, 22–25, 24–22 win.
“Brandeis was playing great defense. Nothing was really hitting the floor, and it was really scrappy, and when it’s scrappy volleyball, it’s really hard to play against because it’s like a ping-pong match of everything just bouncing around—it’s not very structured or organized,” Walby said. “I think our girls got some great touches, handled some things, stayed aggressive. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get a ball to drop on their side, which is hats off to Brandeis.”
An exhausting Friday gave way to Chicago’s toughest test of the weekend, a Saturday meeting with top-seeded Emory.
“Emory is the number one team in the nation right now, and this weekend they looked like the number one team in the nation,” Walby said.
A flat start left the Maroons struggling to climb back into the game, a tall order for a young team against an Emory squad that boasts two UAA championships in the past three seasons. It didn’t help that the Eagles boast one the conference’s biggest rosters, with five players listed at six feet or above.
“We just couldn’t pass, and when we could pass, they had a huge block on us and our hitters really couldn’t do much,” Walby said. “We really couldn’t get them out of system very much.”
The Maroons mounted a small comeback in the third game, with better serving and passing, but it was too late to avoid a loss, as the Eagles took a 25–13, 25–14, 25–20 victory.
Coming out of pool play with a 1–2 record, Chicago was matched up against sixth-seeded Case in a match for fifth-place. A five-game loss to Case on October 18 had the Maroons hungry for a win against a well-matched Spartan squad.
After a rough showing against Emory, the South Siders’ defense returned to the form that the team displayed Friday afternoon against Brandeis. First-year libero Liane Rousseau recorded a school-record 38 digs while Smalls tallied 16 kills on a team season-high 46 attempts. Still, a back-and-forth contest saw the Spartans emerge in the fifth game, taking fifth place with a 24–26, 25–19, 19–25, 25–22, 15–13 win.
“Case was an exceptionally hard loss because we had already lost to them previously in five,” Rousseau said. “It was a revenge match for us, and again, could have gone either way. The team just wasn’t able to close.”
The Maroons were not ecstatic with their sixth-place finish, but the young squad also knows its accomplishments for the season and its high potential for improvement next year. Chicago’s 19 wins for the year are the program’s most since 2004.
Chicago graduates just three players after this season but will need its young roster to fill the void in talent and leadership left by middle hitters Kerry Dornfeld and Katie Volzer and setter Nikki Boddicker. After this weekend, Boddicker closes her career with the Maroons’ record for career assists with 3,155, while Volzer finishes her career fifth on the school’s all-time kills list with 827.
Still, Walby is confident that her squad, which featured strong contributions this season from a plethora of first-years, will move into the top half of the conference next year.
“It’s obvious that we’re on the right track when last year we won seven games and this year we won 19,” she said. “They’re moving in the right direction, and I don’t think this is something that they’re going to settle with.”