The No. 1 Emory volleyball team beat No. 2 University of Chicago (UChicago) on Nov. 9 to secure their second straight University Athletic Association (UAA) title. The victory marks the Eagles’ ninth UAA title and fourth title in the last six years.
Head Coach Jenny McDowell said she is thrilled with the prolonged success of the program.
“I’m most proud of our success of our program over a long period of time because it shows that so many players and coaches have contributed to our success,” McDowell said. “The program is much bigger than any one person.”
Emory’s title defense began with a quarterfinal matchup against Brandeis University (Mass.) on Nov. 8. The Eagles jumped out to a quick two-set lead with a 25-11 first set and a 25-10 second-set victory. Brandeis put up more of a fight, almost catching up to the Eagles in the third set, but to no avail. Emory completed the sweep with a 25-20 win.
The Eagles moved on to a semifinal matchup against University of Washington in St. Louis (WashU) (Mo.) just hours later. WashU started strongly with a 25-21 first-set victory before taking a 23-20 lead in the second set. Desperate to not fall in a 0-2 hole, Emory fought back to even the score at 23-23. The Eagles went on to even the match with a 28-26 second-set win.
Emory maintained their momentum into the third set and took a 2-1 lead with a 25-22 score. WashU won the fourth set 25-17 and forced the already highly competitive match to a sudden death fifth set. The Eagles surged late in the fifth set and took seven of the last nine points to secure their place in the final 15-10.
Despite WashU’s lack of a ranking, sophomore outside hitter Tara Martin said the team was prepared for a challenging match.
“WashU is always a great team,” Martin said. “They always play really well against us, and we were definitely prepared for them to bring their ‘A’ game.”
Martin lead the Eagles offensively with an outstanding 25 kills with a highly efficient .400 hitting percentage throughout the tournament. Freshman setter Cassie Srb supplied a season-high 62 assists, while senior libero Elyse Thompson and senior outside hitter Sara Carr led the team with 16 and 14 digs, respectively.
The UAA championship match featured not only the two best teams in the UAA, but the two best teams in the country. The hosts UChicago, who defeated Emory in a five-set thriller during the regular season, took the first set 25-19. The Eagles responded well with a 25-17 victory in the second set but dropped the third set 25-18. In the fourth set, UChicago led 24-22 and had a golden opportunity to secure the UAA title, needing just one point. With the Eagles’ backs against the wall, senior outside hitter Morgan McKnight stepped up and produced three crucial kills in succession to take the lead. Emory went on to win the set 27-25.
McKnight attributes her ability to step up with the championship on the line to the team’s collective mentality in crunch time.
“Our team loves high pressure situations and seems to thrive in them,” McKnight said. “Our focus and determination gets more intense, and our execution becomes cleaner … [The match saving points] were just another instance of that.”
The Eagles took an early lead 5-2 lead in the fifth set and never looked back as the lead remained at least three the rest of the set. The Eagles successfully defended their title of UAA champions with a 15-10 victory.
Junior right-side hitter Leah Saunders, McKnight and Martin impressed as well and combined for 49 of the team’s 58 kills. Thompson led the team with 27 digs, and Saunders added 15 digs to her offensive performance.
McDowell said the program’s championship has to be accredited to the attitude of her players.
“Winning back-to-back championships is a credit to how hard our team works,” McDowell said. “I think it reflects the passion and heart of our team.”
With the UAA championship victory, the Eagles secured an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Emory has been listed as one of the eight host sites for the first round of the tournament and will play Notre Dame of Maryland University on Nov. 15.
Martin said the team is excited about the opportunity to host in the tournament.
“It feels great to be able to host this weekend,” Martin said. “It’s truly an honor, and we are so excited to get to play one last time in front of our fans.”