Volleyball claims NESCAC crown

Amherst (27-4, 9-1) may have been the top-seeded volleyball team in the conference and the hosts of the 2007 NESCAC volleyball championship, but it was second-seeded Williams (27-7, 9-1) that claimed the title and an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. With the 3-2 win (30-27, 27-30, 30-27, 25-30, 15-9) over the Jeffs in the title match on Sunday, the Ephs avenged last year’s NESCAC championship loss to Amherst. On its road to victory Williams defeated sixth-seeded Middlebury in the quarterfinals on Friday and third-seeded Tufts in Saturday’s semifinal match without dropping a single game. The Ephs’ championship marks the first time since 2004 and the fifth time in seven years that Williams has won the NESCAC title.

With the 2007 NESCAC championship on the line, the stage was set on Sunday afternoon for an epic battle between archrivals Williams and the defending NESCAC champion Amherst. Both teams finished the regular season with conference records of 9-1, with the Ephs’ only loss to the Jeffs on Oct. 16. By finishing first in the regular season standing, Amherst clinched the top seed and the honor of hosting the 2007 championship. Fortunately for the Ephs, the large number of loyal fans who journeyed to LeFrak Gymnasium nearly neutralized Amherst’s home-court advantage.

Both teams came out strong in the opening game of the match, but after a back-and-forth battle the Ephs were able to clinch the first game, 30-27. The Jeffs then responded, jumping out to an early lead in the second game and maintaining their momentum for the win over the Ephs, 30-27. Williams regrouped in Game 3 to take a convincing 17-10 lead early on, forcing an Amherst time-out. Although the Jeffs came within three points of the Ephs late in the game, Williams hung on for the third game win. Amherst forced a fifth deciding game with a 30-25 victory in Game 4.

Williams took control with an early 5-1 lead in the final game, surprising the Amherst team and fans. The Jeffs failed to respond to the Eph charge late in the match, and with a 15-9 win in the fifth game, Williams claimed the 2007 NESCAC title. Williams’ victory marked the first upset of the 2007 tournament.

Standout rookie setter Emily Avis ’11 set a NESCAC championship record with 71 assists to go along with 15 digs. Fellow classmate Nicole Ballon-Landa ’11 led the offensive effort with 23 kills and seven blocks at the middle blocker position. Alisha Cahlan ’10, who was named last week’s NESCAC Player of the Week, followed up Ballon-Landa with 18 kills. Melissa Pun ’10 contributed her usual all-around effort with 14 kills and 21 digs, while Chelsea Kubal ’10 tallied an impressive 36 digs.

For Amherst, senior tri-captain Jaclyn DeMais posted 25 kills, 35 digs, and five blocks, while junior setter Sara Heller tallied 59 assists and 20 digs. Tri-captain Whitney Kouvaris added 19 kills and first-year Rachel Yorke recorded 39 digs.

En route to the championship title, the Ephs defeated the third-seeded Jumbos (19-13, 7-3) in the semifinal match on Saturday. Making quick work of the Jumbos for the second time this season, the Ephs put away their opponent in three straight games (30-20, 30-26, 30-21). Tufts entered Saturday’s match having won seven straight NESCAC matches, but they came up short against Williams. The Ephs were dominant at the net, with Whitney Hitchcock ’10 (four blocks, eight kills), Cahlan (three blocks, nine kills) and Ballon-Landa (four blocks, 14 kills) neutralizing the Jumbo offense. The defensive effort was led by co-captain Riki McDermott ’09 (10 digs), Pun (22 digs, 11 kills) and Kubal (20 digs).

“This was one of our most consistent defensive matches of the season,” Head Coach Fran Vandermeer said.

The Ephs began their successful tournament run with a win against the No. 7 Middlebury Panthers (15-14, 5-5) in Friday’s quarterfinal match-up. The Ephs ended the Panthers’ season with a 3-0 win (30-24, 30-20, 30-21). A close first game startled the Ephs into action, and Williams took the next two games by convincing margins. “Our defensive intensity improved as the match went on, which was key,” Vandermeer said. “This was a good first round match for us.”

The defense was led by Kubal (18 digs) and McDermott (11 digs). On offense, Avis (44 assists, 15 digs) connected with Pun for 15 kills. Elle Levine ’11 (nine kills, seven digs) and Ballon-Landa (eight kills) also posted impressive numbers on offense.

The women earned the No. 2 seed in the New England Regional and will head to MIT tomorrow to take on No. 7 Eastern Connecticut State (11-26) in the first round of the tourney.