Emory’s volleyball team polished off a fiery postseason by claiming the NCAA Division III championship title on Nov. 17 at Duquesne University (Pa.).
The Eagles clinched the championship with a 3-0 victory over Calvin College (Mich.), which was ranked No. 1 entering the quarterfinals. The title marks the second for the program and the 25th for the University.
After securing a place in the quarterfinals a week prior with three consecutive sweeps, the Eagles charged ahead into the latter half of their postseason. Their first match on Nov. 15 was a rematch of last season’s quarterfinal against Ithaca College (N.Y.), which eliminated Emory in a 3-1 defeat in the 2017 postseason.
The first set saw a razor-thin margin between the teams. Emory held onto a small lead in points until Ithaca pushed the game to 13-13. The set seemed all but finished at 20-24 in Emory’s favor when Ithaca began to surge yet again. The score narrowed to 23-24, but Emory found the point they needed to finish the set due to a service error from Ithaca.
The second set swung the momentum in the opposite direction with Ithaca taking the lead 10-5. The Eagles fought to keep their deficit low but struggled 22-15 Ithaca. Despite the Eagles’ impressive six-point streak late in the set, Ithaca found the last three points they needed and won the set 25-22.
After losing their first set of the postseason, Emory pushed the third set to 0-4 in their favor. The match took another wild swing when Ithaca mounted an intense comeback, placing the score at 10-5 Ithaca. Play after play swapped the momentum between the two teams until Ithaca threatened to close at 21-16. The Eagles answered with style by winning nine of the next 11 points — including four service aces — and winning the set 25-23.
With a win in their sights, Emory closed out the match with their strongest set of the evening. After getting ahead 5-0, the team would maintain a minimum lead of three points for the entire set. The Eagles avenged their 2017 loss with a 25-16 fourth set score, sending them on to the semifinals.
Emory’s next opponent was Juniata College (Pa.) on Nov. 16. Much like their first match, the first set lacked clear signs of an advantage for either team. The score tied at five different points throughout the set. Emory put up the last four points of the set to win, breaking a contentious start to the match.
The second set told an entirely different story. In classic Eagle fashion, the team got off to a quick lead, by as much as nine points at one time. A few late streaks by Juniata were enough to stall the game but couldn’t prevent Emory from obtaining another set — this time 25-21.
The third set of the semifinal was Emory’s most difficult of the match. The Eagles fell behind early but regained their footing to tie the score late at 23. The score was tied all the way until 26, at which point the Eagles put away Juniata for good 28-26, advancing Emory to the championship match.
The final match of the NCAA D-III women’s volleyball season pitted Emory against Calvin College (Mich.). The first set started the match off to a close start. Emory traded the lead back and forth for most of the set before buckling down at 16 all. A pair of errors from Calvin gave the Eagles a two-point lead from which they only grew. Excellent team play from senior middle hitter Sydney Leimbach and senior setter Mady Arles helped Emory clinch the last few points they needed to win the first set 25-22.
The team made a statement early in the second set by taking a six-point lead and shutting down Calvin’s attempts for control. A burst of four consecutive points aided by Arles gave the Eagles the edge they needed to convert their lead into a win, ending the set 25-16.
With only one set between them and the title, Emory exploded forward. Three early points from senior opposite hitter Karissa Dzurik put the Eagles ahead, a position they rarely fail to turn into a win. A two-point lead became a 13-point lead after one of the most impressive point streaks of Emory’s entire season. Points flew in left and right from Dzurik, Leimbach and errors by the Calvin offense. The walloping of kills put Emory ahead 19-6, and it seemed there was nothing Calvin could do to recover. Arles brought home the last point of the Eagles’ season to win the set 25-12 and the championship game 3-0.
“Wow,” Head Coach Jenny McDowell said at the beginning of the postgame press conference.
McDowell expressed her amazement towards the team’s journey this season.
“I think our team played really well tonight,” she added. “In the last month, we have been on a good ride, I felt like peaking at the right time. When I look at hitting 0.364 in a national championship, that’s a credit to our passers, our setter and our hitters taking care of the ball.”
The consensus among the players about what won them the title was clear: teamwork.
“Our mission for tonight was just to help each other out, do our jobs and just let the game go as it would,” said sophomore right side hitter Leah Saunders, who had 28 kills during the weekend. “I think we all did our jobs, and the game went like it was supposed to.”
Junior libero Elyse Thompson shared the same narrative of support for those beside her.
“The best part about my job is giving opportunities for the hitters,” Thompson said. “For me, the most celebration I can have is when they get a kill. Seeing [my 24 digs] is not nearly as cool as all the kill stats.”
On an individual level, Arles led the team, averaging 38.7 assists per game in the postseason, enough to win her the title of Most Outstanding Player for the tournament. But Arles credits the rest of the team for her achievements.
“Any honors I have received are a hundred percent honors for my team,” she said. “Specifically, being a setter, I can’t do anything I do without people like [Thompson] or people like [Saunders]. I can’t set anyone if there is no ball for me to set. I can throw the ball in the air as many times as I want, and it doesn’t do anything unless they put it down.”
Some of the most impressive stats from the tournament were Emory’s near flawless 18-1 set record, the team’s 0.364 hitting percentage in the final and their five sweeps out of six games. The Eagles entered the postseason hot and were able to keep up the energy opponent after opponent. The high-soaring team ended a thrilling season with by securing their place in Emory and NCAA history.
Editor’s note: Dzurik is a writer for the Wheel. She was not involved in the composition of this article.