Athenas near-perfect season ends in NCAA semis
by Gabriel Fisher
The Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Athenas volleyball team was two sets away from returning to the NCAA DIII Women’s Volleyball Championship final, but they lost to Calvin University in the semifinals three sets to one.
The Athenas followed up their first-set loss by winning the second, 25-23. CMS lost the third set by the same margin, so it seemed like a competitive fourth would follow, but Calvin ran away with the victory in the end, winning the fourth set by a decisive six points.
The team from Grand Rapids, Michigan, was simply too strong. CMS was able to pull off a stunning comeback in the third round of the tournament, winning the last three sets of that match. But Calvin, with its exceptional defense, prevented CMS from pulling off another stunner. It reigned in the CMS offense, which at one point this season was the best in the nation.
“Calvin didn’t make a lot of mistakes,” Head Coach Kurt Vlasich said. “They’ve got a great libero and back row players who can keep the ball alive.”
Immediately after the match, it sounded like multiple sentiments filled the locker room. Vlasich said the players were optimistic and already excited for next season, but sadness was there, too.
It probably struck some harder than others, like Melanie Williams, one of two graduating seniors. While other players could consider the loss a learning experience for future volleyball seasons, she could not.
“I felt really sad when we lost … sad because the great season was over,” Williams said.
Calvin was the only team to defeat CMS this season, topping the Athenas twice. CMS won all other 31 matches, most of them in straight sets. During one monthlong stretch, the Athenas won 33 consecutive sets.
CMS has further established itself as a volleyball powerhouse, qualifying for their eighth straight NCAA tournament and reaching the final four. In 2017 CMS won the national championship, so it’s not surprising that the Athenas expect to continue to produce championship teams.
“Calvin volleyball is expected to be in the national championship, and I think now we understand that the pedigree for CMS volleyball is we’re supposed to be in the national championship [as well]; we just need to play a little bit better,” Vlasich told reporters after the game.
This expectation is not far fetched. The Athenas are a young team, and only two players are graduating, Williams and Makenna Fall. Even without Fall this season — she suffered a season-ending knee injury early on — the Athenas were able to make a deep run. And although the Athenas are losing a key attacker in Williams, they will return other solid attackers.
Vlasich also said CMS is expecting among many strong recruits a new freshman attacker who he thinks will be a “difference maker.”
In addition to the program’s promising talent, the culture of CMS volleyball seems strong. Williams spoke of the love she has for her teammates, and Vlasich spoke positively about the team’s dynamic nature. It seems like some of the veteran players turned this aspect of the program around.
“Me, Mak [Fall], Jackie, some of the older girls … we really wanted to instill respect because when we first got here, it was a little different,” Williams said. “The younger classes were treated differently, and we wanted to totally eradicate that. Everyone did everything this season. We all put up the nets, we all filled up water bottles, and we just treated everyone as a friend, and I hope that legacy continues on.”
This positive culture inspired at least one player, freshman libero Dede Carranza. Even during the intense competition, she thought about Williams and Fall in a way that transcends volleyball.
“All season, I wanted to play really hard for our seniors. I wanted to make it special for Makenna and Mel,” Carranza said. “Those two in particular held a special place in my mind while on the court.”
The Athenas have at least seven months until they return to competition, but their excitement would seem to indicate that next season begins much sooner.
According to Vlasich, some of his team asked, “Can we start practicing in December?”