Forrest Martin, Photo Editor

The reigning national champion Emory volleyball team started the 2019 season off strong with three convincing wins at the Emory Classic, which was held at the WoodPEC on Aug. 30 and 31. The Eagles were dominant throughout the Classic, dropping only two sets total across three matches. 

Despite the championship run still fresh on the minds of the returning players and the departure of several seniors last year, Head Coach Jenny McDowell is confident her team is locked in for the new season. 

“We are really just focusing on this year,” McDowell said. “[It’s a] completely new team that’s very different from last year’s.”

In Emory’s first match against the Guilford College (N.C.) Quakers, the teams tied midway through the first set 16-16 and the second set 13-13. 

The Quakers proved to be a tough opponent to crack early on. But the Eagles found separation late in both sets and won each of them comfortably by 25-18 and 25-16, respectively. The third set was a one-sided affair as the Eagles took care of business, finishing 25-11 to complete the 3-0 sweep. Senior outside hitter Morgan McKnight and sophomore outside hitter Tara Martin starred in a dominant hitting display for Emory, each tallying 10 kills to aid an impressive team hitting percentage of .376. 

Junior right-side hitter Leah Saunders credits the hitters’ success to the playmaking of freshman setter Cassie Srb and the team’s defense. 

“We have great passers and a good defense that help us feel free to swing away,” Saunders said. 

Against the Johnson & Wales University (R.I.) Wildcats, the Eagles found themselves on the brink of losing the first set, down 24-20. However, with some late-set heroics, Emory scored four straight points to even the score and continued on to win the first set 27-25. 

The team carried their momentum into the second set, which saw the Eagles win 25-15 to take a commanding 2-0 lead. The Wildcats responded well in the third set, this time preserving a 24-20 lead to take the set 25-21. In the fourth set, Emory’s hitting, which had been stifled to some extent in the first three sets, came alive and a .433 hitting percentage propelled them to a 25-13 victory. Saunders led the way for the Eagles offensively with 21 kills, while senior libero Elyse Thompson led the team defensively with 24 digs. 

Even with lulls in the offense, McDowell’s confidence in her hitters never diminishes. 

“We have very experienced hitters,” McDowell said. “They know how to have few hitting errors and work with different sets.”

Emory’s third match against Sewanee: The University of the South (Tenn.) proved to be the toughest. After winning a tight first set 26-24, the Eagles found themselves on their back foot for the first time this season after Sewanee convincingly took the second set 25-17. However, Emory restored order as a balanced attack saw them take the final two sets 25-18 and 25-17 with McKnight, Martin and Saunders all reaching double-digit kills. 

Saunders, McKnight and Thompson received Emory Classic All-Tournament Team honors for their performances across the three matches, with Saunders receiving MVP honors as well.  

“I’m really happy to make my team and fans proud,” Saunders said. “It’s a good start, but [I] need to keep working.”

The Eagles now turn their attention towards a three-game invitational at Berry College (Ga.) on Sept. 6 and 7.