Volleyball downs Wellesley, advances to Elite 8

Volleyball (28-12) fought hard for another weekend, earned three more wins and took home the New England regional title and a ticket to the Elite Eight in the NCAA championship. The women dropped only one set in three matches by defeating Keene State in the first round (26-24, 25-11, 25-16), Springfield in the second (27-25, 25-15, 25-15) and Wellesley in the Sweet 16 in four close sets (27-25, 17-25, 25-23, 25-21) last weekend.
“Our team has come together at the right time of year,” said Head Coach Fran Vandermeer. “The team’s leadership has been outstanding thanks to co-captains Riki McDermott [’09] and Chelsea Kubal [’10], and the team showed a lot of heart this weekend in the regional championship.”

The Ephs opened their NCAA tournament run Thursday night against the Owls. The women continued their impressive play by using a late rally to take the first set and then jumping out to large leads in the latter two sets to win the match handily. The team relied on the strong offensive play of Kate Anderson ’11 and Nicole Ballon-Landa ’11, who provided 14 and 16 kills, respectively. All 11 members contributed to the defensive effort that was also extremely important in securing the victory.

Volleyball had its hands full Friday night in a matchup against top-seeded Springfield who came into the match with a record of 32-4 and an 18-match winning streak. The women, however, were unfazed and came out firing on all cylinders. The Ephs played hard and, for the second night in a row, rode a late rally to win the first set in extra points.

The women then left Springfield in the dust, cruising to victories by extremely comfortable margins in the second and third sets. The Ephs continued their highly effective net and service play from the previous weekend at the NESCAC championship as Eleanor Levine ’11 (five blocks, three aces), Emily Avis ’11 (four blocks, 29 assists), Ballon-Landa (two blocks, 10 kills, two aces), Whitney Hitchcock ’10 (four blocks) and Anderson (17 kills) posted huge numbers in the match.

The Ephs faced their biggest battle of the season on Saturday night in the regional championship match against the Blue. Both teams had pulled off upsets the night before to enter the Elite Eight, and both teams were going to lay their hearts on the court to keep their seasons alive.

The Ephs had a very comfortable lead in the first set, but watched as the Blue eroded it point by point and eventually squared the match at 24 points apiece. The Ephs recovered and fought hard down the stretch to take the set. The team dropped the second set as Wellesley’s play proved too much to handle. However, the women buckled down in the grueling third and fourth sets and fought tooth and nail for every single point to earn the win.

Every single member of the team posted huge numbers and stepped up to perform at her highest level. On offense, Avis posted 48 assists to coordinate and facilitate the net play of Ballon-Landa (20 kills, two blocks) and Anderson (22 kills, four blocks). Another key to the victory was the team’s defensive consistency led by co-captains Kubal and McDermott with 10 and 11 digs, respectively. Andrea Scioscia ’10 (11 digs) and Melissa Pun ’10 (14 digs) also played extremely tough defense. The entire team effort earned the women their trip to the Elite Eight.

“Our team has really come together and finally clicked both offensively and defensively,” said Kubal. “For these past two weeks we have been able to put together all of the components that we had been working so hard on all season, and it is amazing to see our hard work paying off. We have been able to pick up our intensity on both offense and defense, yet remained composed and resilient in the times when we struggle. We have been very confident in ourselves and our teammates and this has helped our offense tremendously, as our big hitters are not afraid to go up and take big swings at the ball because they know our defense is there to cover them.”

McDermott echoed her teammate’s thoughts. “We played like a cohesive unit of 11, and it really showed,” said McDermott. “Now that our team is finally healthy, we want to push ourselves to be better. We are still working on running a faster offense, which means that we’ll need to try to perfect our communication, our serve receive passing and our aggressiveness.”

Ballon-Landa and Anderson were recently named First Team All- New England by the New England Women’s Volleyball Association and also to the First Team All-Conference squad by the NESCAC. In addition to these accolades, Anderson was named MVP and Ballon-Landa was named to the New England Regional All-Tournament Team for their incredible efforts this weekend.

“As far as the Elite Eight goes, I think we are all fired up and ready to go,” Kubal said. “We don’t know a whole lot about our first round matchup against Ohio Northern, but we expect it to be a battle. We will simply continue to play our game and make adjustments to their size and tempo.”

The women will indeed have their work cut out for them this Thursday as they travel to Illinois to take on Ohio-Northern (33-4). The Ephs hope to continue their 12-game winning streak.