November 7, 2011

Chicago takes third at UAAs, earns NCAA berth

In the throes of combat, it is often said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The words of George Santayana provide an adequate lens through which to view the UAA Championship over the weekend, and an appropriate adage to guide our narrative of volleyball.

The 16th-ranked Maroons stepped to the battlegrounds of the conference championships with high hopes and can continue to hold their heads high after an animated performance that led to an at-large berth in the NCAA national championship later this week, their second in as many years.

During the course of the UAA tournament, the Maroons found themselves revising history, since they encountered three opponents they had faced in regular season conference play.

The Maroons cruised past Rochester in their first match of the tournament 25-17, 25-22, 25-20, much as they had done in a straight set win at the first UAA Round Robin a month ago. Third-year middle Caroline Brander led the charge with 11 kills and fourth-year stalwart Isis Smalls added eight more. Samantha Brown recorded 15 digs, a usual day’s work for the conference leader in this category.

With a notch on their belt, Chicago hit a wall in the form of Wash U later that Friday. A fortnight ago, Chicago had failed to prevail over then–second-ranked Wash U even after coming out strong and winning the first set. This time around, the “Harvard of the Midwest” came with a crimson fury that permitted little hope, slashing through Chicago in straight sets, 25–15, 25–20, 25–11. The Bears stifled the Maroons’ capable offense to the tune of only 25 kills total and a negative hit percentage in the third and final game of the match. Smalls led Chicago with nine kills but the Maroons’ defense was little able to contain the Washington onslaught. Washington would eventually go on to upset first-seeded Emory for the conference championship.

“Washington University came out to play against us,” head coach Vanessa Walby said. “They were aggressive from the start. You could tell that they were on a mission to win this conference tournament.“

The next day, Chicago returned to the field of calamity on a soul-stirring note, with a dauntless, resurgent conquest of Case Western in the third-place game on Saturday to finish the tournament. Chicago had fallen into a stupor in its earlier encounter with Case before clawing back for a 3–2 victory. Therefore, the expectation this time around was a fiercely contended five-game match against a scrappy, defensive team that had looked up enviously at Chicago throughout the season.

The match did not disappoint, as a strong Case squad put the Maroons on the brink by taking the first two games behind a string of accurate hitting and stout defense. But the Maroons recovered and played to the standard that they had set for themselves all season, a level of quality that was beyond the maximum Case could put forward. Chicago won the third and fourth games by margins of 10 or more. Amidst the carnage, Chicago amassed 62 kills, 62 set assists, 97 digs, and 13 total team blocks. Four players recorded double-digit kills, led by Colleen Belak with 16, while five players mined double-digit digs with superstar libero Brown leading with 31. The final score rested at 18–25, 21–25, 25–12, 25–15, 15–11, Chicago.

“I knew that our match against Case was going to be tough,” Walby said. “We had beaten them earlier in the year in five games, so I knew they would want revenge. They came out and played that way, as well. Our girls had to elevate their game significantly to make a turnaround against this team.”

“The Case game was a great win for us as a team,” second-year Morgan Clark said. “Not only did it earn us third place in the UAA, but it also showed us how to dig deep and play under pressure. We really grew together as a team, made our minds up, and accomplished what we needed to do.”

The Maroons emerged from the bedlam with a hard-fought third place in the conference, a standing that, along with their national ranking, would surely propel them into the national tourney.

“I have thought from the beginning of the season that we are definitely a top three team, so I am glad that we finished in the top three,” Walby said.

Chicago had to wait two days for the NCAA selection committee to reveal the full bracket for the national championship tournament. Given the UAA’s reputation as a tough conference, the Maroons would, almost certainly, garner one of the at-large bids. On Monday, they received the good news that they would face 21st–ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater, champions of the WIAC.

The Maroons will almost certainly have to play to character to prevail, and their defense will be the robust core of such character. They will have to rely on the defense that topped conference leaders, Emory and Wash U, in digs and blocks.

“We have stressed defense and blocking since the beginning of the year,” Walby said. “It is the philosophy that our staff and team lives by. I feel that are offense rolls off of our defense. We are a good offensive team, as well. We are just now playing tougher competition and it is going to be more difficult to find kills.”

For the Maroons to keep their place in the sun, this defense will surely need to come out swinging in order to defeat Wisconsin-Whitewater. Chicago remains winless against nationally-ranked opponents this season, and if they can power through Wisconsin-Whitewater, they will, once again, encounter that behemoth that plugs the Gateway to the West, Wash U.