The Emory volleyball team won nine straight sets across their three matches Nov. 9 to Nov. 11 to win the 2017 NCAA Division III Atlanta Regional.
Emory won 3-0 against Worcester State University (Mass.) Nov. 9, Christopher Newport University (Va.) Nov. 10 and Berry College (Ga.) Nov. 11.
As regional hosts, the Eagles improved their total home record to 17-1 for the season, their only loss coming at the hands of Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) (Mo.) in the University Athletic Association (UAA) tournament final Nov. 4.
In the first regionals game against Worcester State, the Eagles dominated. But as Head Coach Jenny McDowell noted, “This first match wasn’t an incredibly tough opponent.”
The Eagles have been focusing on serving in practices, and that dedication paid off in the first game. Junior setter Mady Arles, sophomore outside hitter Sara Carr, junior right side Carly Saitman and senior setter Hannah Billings all achieved serving streaks of four or more.
The team also thrived with its net work. Carr attained 27 total attacks and junior outside hitter Karissa Dzurik maintained a .474 kill percentage.
The impressive play continued into the second match for the Eagles, when Christopher Newport hardly stood a chance against the Eagles’ tough offense. Saitman once again thrived with a six-serving streak, forcing Christopher Newport to take not one, but two timeouts in hopes of stymieing Saitman’s aggressive run behind the back line.
The Christopher Newport game also demonstrated Emory’s on-court leadership.
Leaders on the court range from Billings, the team’s sole senior, to younger players like Carr, who brings both an encouraging demeanor and physical talent. Junior middle hitter Sydney Leimbach has also been an important leader for the team, despite having to watch much of the season from the sidelines due to injury. Leimbach leads verbally, according to McDowell.
“We’ve had some great leaders emerge from different classes,” McDowell said. “There’s a real unselfishness on this team.”
In the regional final, Emory met with a familiar foe in its the third match against Berry this season. Though the Eagles suffered a definitive 3-0 defeat at Berry Oct. 10, Emory bounced back Oct. 28 with a 3-0 sweep of their own to even the season series. With their season on the line, Emory needed to replicate that performance if they wanted to claim the regional crown.
About 250 fans filled the WoodPEC for the final Berry game. Athletes of other Emory teams, with a strong presence from women’s and men’s basketball, crowded onto the bleachers to support their fellow Eagles.
In the final game, the Eagles flourished with a collective 54 digs and use of strategic passing skills. But the team truly shined once again at the net, as demonstrated by the final play of the match.
Starting with a forceful serve from Thompson, Billings set the ball to freshman right side Leah Saunders, who sent the ball back over with a kill. Berry attempted to block the kill, but instead forced the ball out of bounds, delivering the final set and, consequently, the regional title to Emory.
“The championship winning point was an awesome moment,” Billings said.
Billings and McDowell pointed to the importance of team intensity in the practices leading up to their quarterfinal matchup.
“We just have to stay mentally sharp,” McDowell said. “We talk about it all the time: What are the different skills on the court that we can control?”
The team has been succeeding physically, so for Billings it all comes down to the mental game and the attitude her teammates exude on the court.
“My biggest goal for this team is to just have everyone play with confidence, and that’s where we are right now,” Billings said.
The weekend’s wins qualified the Eagles for the NCAA D-III Elite Eight, where they will face off against Ithaca College (N.Y.).
The team will travel to Grand Rapids, Mich., Nov. 14 for a banquet and community service activities before facing off against Ithaca in the quarterfinals Nov. 16 at 12:30 p.m. The winner will proceed to play either Claremont McKenna College (Calif.) or Gustavus Adolphus College (Minn.) in the tournament semifinals Nov. 17 at 5 p.m. The championship will be decided Nov. 18 at 7 p.m.
Karissa Dzurik is a staff writer for the Wheel.