It's volleyball season once again, but it hasn't been business as usual for the Maroons. Featuring a new coach and loaded with a bevy of young talent, Chicago's women's volleyball team is 6-2 over its first eight games, an auspicious start for a program that has faltered in recent years.
The team opened its season Labor Day weekend at the Dominican Invite, where the Maroons dropped their first match against Augustana College (6-0) before running off three straight wins to close out the weekend. The following Friday, Chicago travelled to Winona, Minnesota, for the St. Mary's Invite. Once again, the Maroons fell in their first match against Loras College (6-1) but didn't lose another set, finishing with a 3-1 mark for the weekend.
With six wins already this year, the Maroons have matched their tally from the entire 2006 season, in which they finished at 6-29, and stand only one win shy of their total from last year, when they went 7-26.
Much of the credit for the Maroon's early success this year has to go to the first-year class, particularly outside hitters Isis-Njeri Smalls, Colleen Belak, and libero Liane Rousseau.
On Chicago's first day of play this season, Belak had an 11-kill performance in the losing effort against Augustana. That afternoon, Smalls followed Belak's breakout match with an 11-kill showing of her own as the Maroons downed Dominican (1-3) in a full five sets.
"Isis Smalls is kind of one of our big guns on the left side, which is nice to see out of a freshman," the new head coach Vanessa Walby said.
Rousseau had nineteen digs on the day, eight against Augustana and eleven against Dominican.
"Liane Rousseau just kind of stepped up to the plate and was able to fill that void that we were having on serve receiving and on defense," Walby said.
The next day's matches saw more big numbers from the Maroons, who starred against Dominican. Smalls had 14 kills as the Maroons took on Grinnell to start the day, and second-year outside hitter Elizabeth Kossnar got in on the act, getting 12 kills of her own. Rousseau piled up an impressive 21 digs, and Chicago rolled in straight sets.
When the Maroons took on Benedictine (2-6) later that day, Smalls once again stepped up, notching nine kills and a .400 hitting percentage, and once again Chicago had its way and didn't lose a single set to the Eagles. For her troubles, Smalls picked up a little hardware: the tournament MVP award.
Chicago saw an upward trend in its performance over the weekend not only because the caliber of competition decreased somewhat, but also because the team became more and more at home on the court as the tournament wore on.
"The first day was how young our team was," Walby said. "We were kind of nervous going into some of the situations, and Augustana was a great team that we played, and I was kind of sad that we played them right at the beginning because, for our girls, that was kind of an eye opener."
"I think we became more comfortable in what we were doing and just relaxed a little bit more as we went throughout the tournament," Walby continued. "Our second match looked a whole lot better than our first, and third, and fourth, and so on."
Given the team's difficulties the past couple seasons, the 3-1 start was no doubt exciting for the Maroons, but they didn't have much time to savor it. They were back on the court the next Friday, taking on Loras College, one of their toughest opponents this season.
Chicago managed to stretch the Duhawks at the start of the match, pushing the first set to extra points before losing 29-27. The next set was similarly close, but the Maroons once more wound up on the short end, 25-23. After squeaking by in the first two sets, Loras cruised in the third, winning 25-16.
The match was not without its high points for the Maroons. Belak had 11 kills, as did fourth-year middle blocker Kerry Dornfeld. But while Belak and Rousseau each came up with 10 digs, it was the Duhawks who shone on defense, totaling 78 digs for the match and making it especially difficult for the Maroons to pick up points.
Those were the last of the difficulties faced by the Maroons that weekend. Playing St. Mary's (7-2) later in the day, the team had 54 kills: 20 from Belak, 12 from Kossnar, and 11 from Dornfeld. They also got double-digit digs from three players, including first-year right side hitter Anasuya Kabad, who led the team with 18. The Cardinals stayed close in all three sets but never got over the hump, and Chicago won 25-20, 25-22, 26-24.
Dornfeld shone for the Maroons during the next day's first game, recording 10 kills as Chicago turned back Marian (1-6) in the three sets. A 2-1 mark during the tournament's first three games was good enough to put Chicago in the third-place game against Lakeland (4-4). The South Siders took that match, again in straight sets, and again with impressive numbers from newcomers Belak and Rousseau, who had 15 kills and 14 digs, respectively.
The hot start is a good sign for Chicago volleyball and a marked improvement over past years, but the streak doesn't mean the Maroons are out of the woods yet. The real test will come later this season in UAA play, which is where Chicago has struggled most in the past. The Maroons haven't finished in the top half of the UAA since 1996, and during the previous seven years under former head coach Dorinda von Tersch, they never won more than four UAA games in a season.
"The competition that we are going to see in the UAA is going to be a lot tougher than what we are seeing so far," Walby said, "but I think the schedule that we have so far is going to help us out and get us ready for that."