October 7, 2008

Volleyball success carries over into conference debut

[img id="80781" align="alignleft"] A year ago, sporting a 1–10 conference record, few would have put money on a Chicago volleyball revival after just one season. In a conference that counts two squads in the national top five, and where only one team owns a losing record, rebounding in the UAA this season looked to be a tough task for the Maroons.

However, volleyball’s resurgence under new head coach Vanessa Walby shows no signs of slowing down. Opening its conference season with a 2–1 showing at the first UAA round robin, the Maroons (16–7, 2–1 UAA) earned a third-place slot in the conference standings after dropping NYU 3–2, sweeping Brandeis 3–0, and falling to second-ranked Emory 0–3.

Starting the weekend off on Saturday, Chicago topped the Violets (14–6, 1–2) by a margin of 25–21 in the opening set but then dropped the next two by scores of 23–25 and 19–25 to put themselves on the brink of extending their UAA losing streak to five games, carrying over from last season. Clawing back, the Maroons took a 25–21 win to force a tiebreaker. Down 4­–8 midway through the fifth set, Chicago bounced back to take the win, 15–13. Fourth-year captain and middle blocker Kerry Dornfeld led the squad with 13 kills as the South Siders topped NYU for the first time since 1998.

“One reason we pulled out that NYU match is because Chicago knows how to fight,” first-year outside hitter Isis Smalls said. “We never stop trying because we’ve worked too hard to get to this point of competition; giving up is just not in us.”

After Saturday’s big win, the Maroons had a wake-up call on Sunday when a 14–25, 20–25, 20–25 loss to Emory (19–3, 3–0) let Chicago know just what it needs to do to contend with the UAA’s elite. The second-ranked Eagles were national semi-finalists last year and will likely stand in Chicago’s way when the squad travels to November’s UAA Championship.

Offensive trouble doomed the Maroons against the Eagles, as no player broke 10 kills and the team hit a season-low .105, far below their average of .239. The squad seemed to improve as the match progressed, however, increasing their scoring and minimizing their errors as the sets went on.

“After the first game, we stayed right there with them and showed them we weren’t just going to roll over,” Smalls said. “We have all the potential in the world to be a nationally ranked team and becoming a UAA big dog ourselves. As a team, we believe in this potential. However, now it’s just changing our mentality from keeping up with the great teams like Emory to pushing through to beat them. It will come; we will just have to keep working.”

Looking to leave Pittsburgh with a winning conference record, Chicago faced the Judges (9–7, 0–3) in their last match of the weekend and pulled away with a 25–23, 25­–22, 25–20 showing. Smalls and Dornfeld had 11 kills each, as the Maroons sent Brandeis to the bottom of the standings after a winless weekend.

“It’s a great feeling to know that our hard work is paying off, and we’re right there with the best of them,” Smalls said, “but we still have a long way to go. We can’t relax because it’s such a tough conference, but having the confidence from our wins this weekend is definitely motivating.”

The South Siders will return to the court Wednesday night as they face off against NAIA competitor Illinois Tech (11–10).

After that, Chicago will get another shot at the conference’s best next weekend when they travel to Brandeis for the second UAA round robin. This time around, the Maroons will have to contend with fourth-ranked Wash U (15–4, 3–0), the defending national champions.