November 10, 2009

Third-place finish has Chicago back on UAA map

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It’s not often that the UAA volleyball championships are in Chicago—they last came to town in 2001—so when the conference tournament arrived at Ratner Friday and Saturday, volleyball made sure to make good use of the home advantage

Registering their best UAA Championship performance in 13 years, the Maroons (28–13, 7–4 UAA) went 2–1 in the opening round robin before beating NYU in the third-place match Saturday to close out their season.

The only squads to finish ahead of Chicago were third-ranked Wash U and fourth-ranked Emory; the Eagles beat the Bears in Saturday’s championship match to win the conference and garner the automatic NCAA bid.

Third place in the highly competitive UAA is an impressive showing from the much-improved Maroons, who won just seven matches two years ago. However, they very nearly ended finishing even higher. Chicago was just a few points from beating Emory, the defending national champion, when the teams met in the final round-robin match Saturday morning. Beating the Eagles would have put Chicago in the championship match against Wash U, where they could have finished no worse than runner-up.

Chicago’s energy was high going into the Emory match, which helped earn them a 25–21 victory in the first set. Though Emory took the second set, the Maroons stayed within a few points most of the way before succumbing 16–25.

The third set was marked by aggressive blocks, especially by first-year middle blocker Caroline Brander and second-year outside hitter Colleen Belak, few errors, and excellent serves, which led to a 25–13 Chicago victory and a 2–1 lead in the match.

The Maroons were excited going into set four and fought hard before ultimately losing 25–27, which forced a decisive fifth set.

Chicago initially led the final set, but Emory worked back and ultimately defeated the Maroons 15–13.

The five-set thriller against the highly rated Emory side was far closer than the Maroons’ straight-sets loss to the Eagles earlier this season, and it was a sign of how far the team has come, not only over the past couple years, but also in the past few weeks.

Second-year outside hitter Paige Peltzer said after the loss to Emory that the team was “proud of how they played, disappointed that they lost.”

Chicago’s first match was on Friday against sixth-seeded Carnegie. The Maroons started out strong in taking the first set but lost control of the ball in the second and third sets. Chicago rallied in the fourth and fifth sets with the help of some particularly spectacular kills made by second-year outside hitter Isis Smalls to prevail over the Tartans 25–20, 12–25, 18–25, 27–25, 15–3.

Head coach Vanessa Walby said the team was especially excited for the rest of the weekend’s matches after defeating Carnegie, which beat Chicago earlier this fall. Even so, Walby remained focused on improving throughout the upcoming matches, reiterating that the two things required for a strong game were “to serve aggressively and block closely.”

The Maroons went on to defeat seventh-seeded Brandeis in their second Friday match. During that game, Smalls collected 11 kills, third-year outside hitter Elizabeth Kossnar had nine, and Belak made seven kills and three aces.

First-year libero Sam Brown played excellently all weekend, totaling 67 digs over the course of the tournament, and repeatedly making digs that elicited gasps and cheers from the crowd.

In the program’s 38-year history, only one other Maroon squad has notched more wins than the 2009 Maroons’ count of 28. As good as that total looks now, the most exciting thing about it may be what it portends for the coming years. Chicago is an unusually young team, and their lone fourth-year, outside hitter Diandra Bucciarelli, took a medical redshirt during her third year and will return for one more season next fall.

“We’ll just keep progressing,” Walby said.