November 9, 2010

After disappointing UAAs, volleyball collects NCAA berth

After a UAA tournament performance that fell short of the volleyball team’s high expectations for the season, history came to them yesterday morning.

Most of the team crowded into head coach Vanessa Walby’s office early Monday for the NCAA tournament decision show, which gave Chicago its first-ever trip to the National Championships.

“There were about 10 girls in my office, and they were pretty excited,” Walby said. “There was a lot of screaming, a lot of jumping up and down.”

The announcement came after a conference tournament weekend that saw Chicago go 2–2 with a tournament bid hanging in the balance. With the Maroons ranked fifth in the Midwest—a region that sent six teams last season—a strong showing at the conference tournament would have cemented the South Siders’ spot in the championship tournament.

But with a loss to unranked Case on Friday evening and another to eventual conference champion Emory on Saturday, Chicago’s first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament wasn’t a sure thing going into the decision show Monday morning.

“I think the girls were pretty nervous,” Walby said. “It was an excited nervous though.”

Chicago (30–12) heads to Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio on Wednesday morning for their Thursday opener against sixth-ranked Hope (26–4), which qualified on an automatic bid after winning the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship tournament this weekend.

The Flying Dutch, who reached the Final Four before being eliminated by eventual champion Wash U last season, have won 19 straight matches, a streak that dates back to September 18.

Chicago has played Hope just once before (a 2006 loss), and while Walby said she’ll be collecting scouting information over the next couple of days, the Maroons will already have to make several adjustments from this weekend if a long tournament run is in store.

Consistency was once again a problem for the Maroons, who dominated their UAA opener against Rochester, winning that contest 3–0, before losing to unranked Case in the second match.

A resilient defense and strong block kept the Maroons’ offense off balance for stretches of that contest, with Chicago playing to form for parts of the match but never making enough of a run to put the Spartans away. The Maroons took the first and fourth matches, but Case locked up the win with a 15–8 win in the final set.

“Case came bringing a game that we did not expect them to bring,” second-year Sam Brown said. “We have a continuing issue with starting games in a hole, and that is exactly what we did against them. They played very scrappy defense and played with a lot more heart than we did.”

The Maroons came out slow Saturday morning against Emory, as the defending UAA champs set the tone early with a 25–8 win in the first set and controlled the match throughout. Although the Maroons pushed the Eagles to five sets at UAAs a season ago, Emory left no question in Saturday’s contest.

“We knew that was going to be a battle,” Brown said. “The first game was an embarrassment because we were not prepared for their speed.”

With the UAA title out of the picture and their NCAA fate uncertain, the Maroons played what might have been their final match of the season late Saturday. Having beaten Carnegie 3–2 in the Round Robin earlier this year, Chicago played a strong first set against the Tartans and pulled out a 3–1 win to finish fifth in the conference.

“We wanted to go out on a high note,” Walby said. “Some things didn’t go our way, and we just wanted to do the best we could with what was in front of us.”

In light of Monday’s announcement, though, the Maroons’ hopes are still alive, as Chicago was one of five UAA teams to qualify for NCAAs. The season is already a historic one for Chicago, as the team has won 30 matches for the first time since 1992 (tying a school record) with an opportunity to build on that in their first-ever tournament appearance.

“I think it’s a good building block,” Walby said. “The girls worked extremely hard to put Chicago on the map, and this is a nice reward to them.”