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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, May 27, 2024

Volleyball falls short in NESCAC Championships

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Senior outside hitter Hayley Hopper prepares for a spike in the NESCAC Championship game against Williams.

The Tufts volleyball team lost only one game on its home court all year, and it was the NESCAC championship game against Williams College on Sunday.

Sunday's showdown between the top two teams in the NESCAC was thrilling from start to finish, reflecting just how evenly matched the opponents were. Every set went down to the wire, with none being decided by more than five points. Williams struck first, winning the opening set 25-20, but Tufts roared back to win the second set 25-22. The two teams proceeded to split the third and fourth sets despite both nearly blowing large leads in each, as the Ephs lost a 22-14 lead in the third set and the Jumbos coughed up an 18-8 advantage in the fourth. Both times, however, the team with the large lead held on to win.

Tufts started the fifth set strong, jumping out to a 7-4 lead thanks to four kills from senior tri-captain Hayley Hopper, who received chants of "MVP" from the fired-up crowd. Williams recovered to tie the score at 8-8, and then pulled ahead. One point away from victory, the Ephs faltered with a pair of errors, allowing the Jumbos to close the gap to 14-13 and setting up a photo finish. The fans at Cousens Gym were on the edge of their seats, as Williams won the final point on a Tufts set error to secure the championship, denying the Jumbos their first-ever tournament title. Junior Maddie Kuppe shone in the losing effort with a team-high 16 kills and four service aces, while classmate Kyra Baum compiled 42 assists. Baum and junior Carolina Berger led the Jumbo defense with 18 digs apiece.

The closeness of the game was evident in the final stats, as Williams outscored Tufts by just four points over the five sets, 110-106. The two teams' hitting percentages were nearly even at .188 for the Ephs and .178 for the Jumbos. Tufts totaled 11 blocks to Williams's 10, though the Ephs narrowly eclipsed the Jumbos in digs (75 to 73) and service aces (eight to six). Williams finished one game behind Tufts in the regular season standings, but this time it was the Ephs who won by a nose.

"We went into this weekend knowing the importance of these matches, as well as knowing the mental and physical challenges we would face and have to overcome," coach Cora Thompson said. "I was extremely proud of our team for battling with three tough opponents. All 15 players really contributed to our success this weekend."

Tufts advanced to the NESCAC championship round in dramatic fashion as well, needing all five sets to eliminate Bowdoin from the semifinals. The Polar Bears won the opening set 25-17, but the Jumbos bounced back to win the second set 25-15. Bowdoin was one win way from advancing to the finals after taking the third set 25-19, but Tufts won a hard-fought fourth set 25-22 to stay alive. The closely contested fifth set proved to be a microcosm of the entire match. Tied at 11, the outcome remained in doubt until the Jumbos scored four of the final five points to close out the set and move on to the finals. Sophomore Mary Maccabee notched the game-winning kill, one of eight on the day for the outside hitter.

Maccabee was one of six Jumbos to tally five kills or more, led by Hopper's 23. Eight of Hopper's kills came in the must-win fourth set, and she made just six errors in 53 attempts for a .321 hitting percentage. Baum facilitated the offense with 45 assists and was a defensive force with 18 digs. Berger led Tufts with 21 digs and two service aces, while sophomore Elizabeth Ahrens and senior tri-captain Isabel Kuhel combined for all 10 of the team's blocks.

"The reason we played so well is that everyone was doing amazingly and really working together," Kuhel said. "The game against Bowdoin was a huge test of our consistency and mental toughness. We showed ourselves that we can battle with top teams point for point and come out on top."

Tufts swept Trinity in Friday's quarterfinals, winning all three sets easily. The Jumbos had swept the Bantams during their regular season meeting on October 11th, and this match yielded the same final result. Trinity was never really a threat, as Tufts won 25-8, 25-15 and 25-12. Kuppe had a match-high 11 kills for the Jumbos, aided by Ahrens's seven. The 6-foot-1 Kuhel accounted for six of the Jumbos' 10 blocks, with four solo blocks and two block assists.

The Jumbos, who had won 12 straight prior to their title game defeat, finish the year with a 21-8 overall record. They are moving on to the NCAA Div. III Tournament and will be playing in the Stevens Regional in Hoboken, N.J. this weekend. Tufts hopes to get back on the winning track in its tournament opener against Springfield College on Friday.

"This weekend was certainly a wonderful tribute to all of their hard work and dedication thus far, but this team is still very hungry for more," Thompson said. "Their drive and passion to compete has been so impressive and is not fading anytime soon. This weekend will certainly be a challenging one, but the team that ultimately wins will be the team who can harness the present moment, stay tough mentally and play with intensity and confidence each and every point."

"This weekend was so exciting for TUVB and we loved the high energy competitive volleyball all weekend," Ahrens added. "Hosting NESCACs was very rewarding, and we are even more excited to be playing in the NCAAs this weekend."