The Emory volleyball team hosted the University Athletic Association (UAA) Championships Nov. 3 to Nov. 5 and fought their way to the final match, only to fall 3-1 to one of their biggest rivals, Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) (Mo.).
Emory defeated Case Western Reserve University (Ohio) 3-0 and Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.) 3-2 Nov. 3 to reach the championship game. The Eagles fell to WashU in the UAA Championship title match Nov. 4.
Although the Eagles failed to receive an automatic bid from the UAA tournament, they will still proceed to the NCAA Division III postseason.
“We went from being really excited on Friday to being disappointed on Saturday,” Head Coach Jenny McDowell said. “[WashU] was at the top of their game, and we weren’t quite at the top of ours.”
Prior to this deciding match, McDowell’s squad had only played WashU once this season and lost 3-2. After Saturday’s loss, Emory stands No. 2 in the UAA, behind No. 1 WashU. In NCAA Division III rankings, WashU has a No. 4 ranking in the central region while Emory remains No. 1 in the southern region.
While the Eagles may not have achieved a satisfactory comeback against WashU, McDowell said that she still felt encouraged by the weekend’s results. Emory had lost to Carnegie Mellon earlier this fall during a time that junior defensive specialist Mila Barzdukas described as a “lull in the season.” To come back on top of Carnegie Mellon was an accomplishment not only for the weekend but also for the season as a whole.
In the first two games of the weekend, McDowell felt encouraged that the team showed improvement in areas that have been of prime focus during practices. One of those areas is the Eagles’ defensive work, which has seen major improvement over the past few weeks.
“I think, in particular, we’ve been working a lot on blocking, which allows our defense to set up a little better and more quickly,” McDowell said.
Sophomore outside hitter Sara Carr, sophomore defensive specialist Elyse Thompson and Barzdukas have been crucial in that blocking strategy. Their ability to read the opposing hitters has improved the Eagles’ overall defensive effort, according to McDowell.
In Friday’s first game against Case Western, sophomore outside hitter Morgan McKnight helped carry her team to victory with 25 total attacks and 11 kills. Freshman right side Leah Saunders had a .588 kill percentage. Emory played some of its best volleyball of the season, never letting Case Western reach 20 points in any set.
Making a swift turnaround between back-to-back matches will always be an obstacle for a team to overcome, but McDowell believes the team did a great job keeping stamina high in adapting between the Case Western and Carnegie Mellon games.
“We had the turnaround, and it’s never easy to play back to back, but we refocused very quickly,” McDowell said.
In the Carnegie Mellon game, Emory started off with a three-point lead due to the opponent’s ball handling errors. And even with some serving and attack errors of their own, the Eagles won the first set 25-18. Carnegie Mellon and Emory then went back and forth, each winning two matches, only for Emory to come out on top in the final set, 15-12. Carr had 71 total attacks, Thompson had 34 digs and junior right side and setter Carly Saitman had a .556 kill percentage.
“We played with grit,” Barzdukas said. “We set the standard for how we wanted to play, and [those] two matches went our way because we controlled the pace of the match.”
The team has focused lately on finishing well, specifically, maintaining ball control in the last five points of each set. McDowell also pointed to the team’s slow start in the WashU match.
“We ended up playing catch-up the entire time,” McDowell said. “We have to do a better job focusing at the beginning of each set.”
Emory started off the first set with eight attack errors. The Eagles rebounded to take the second set, but WashU returned in the third and fourth sets to take the game.
“At the end of the day, WashU is a very good team, and we have a very heated rivalry with them,” Barzdukas said. “But everything that didn’t go our way is fixable.”
The Eagles are hoping to make those fixable adjustments in the coming practices prior to the NCAA tournament beginning Nov. 9. The team aims to work on serving, serve receives and energy management, according to Barzdukas.
In the tough moments of the deciding game, McDowell said she was able to keep her composure because of her superb staff and players.
“I have a great staff with a great sense of humor that keeps me composed,” she said. “Of course we were frustrated on Saturday, but we have players [who] are never purposely playing bad and care desperately about this all. It’s easy to keep my composure when I keep that in perspective.”
Until the NCAA Division III tournament, the Eagles will prepare to extend their season for as long as possible.
“We’re excited for what’s to come,” Barzdukas said. “At the end of the day, we’re still going to NCAA, which has been a major goal for us.”
Emory will host the NCAA D-III Atlanta Region games this week, facing off against Worcester State University (Mass.) Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. If the Eagles win, they will move on to play either Christopher Newport University (Va.) or Thomas More College (Ky.) Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. Emory will also host the championship match on Nov. 11 at 7 p.m.