HOPKINSSPORTS.COM The Blue Jays celebrate after a 3-1 win over Stevenson University.
After winning their fifth Centennial Conference title since 2011, the Blue Jays’ women’s volleyball team headed to Stevenson, Md. this past weekend to compete in the NCAA Division-III Women’s Volleyball Championship.
In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Jays faced off against the Kean University Cougars. The match lasted only three sets, as that was all Hopkins needed to defeat the Cougars and move onto the second round.
The first was sloppy to begin with, as both teams came out sluggish. Service errors were the main method of scoring for both teams, and it was neck-and-neck until the score was 14-14. The Jays then took advantage of two four-point runs to eventually win the set 25-19.
Hopkins jumped out to an early lead in the second set, and despite some responses by the Cougars, Kean was not able to get the lead below four. The Blue Jays would score the last seven points of the set to win 25-14.
The third set started the opposite way to the second, with the Cougars jumping out to a 4-0 lead. The lead would grow even more to 7-1 before the Jays began to respond.
Hopkins eventually tied the score at 14, and from there they flew ahead to win the set 25-20, thanks to a stellar offensive display across the board.
The Jays’ offense, which finished the match with a 0.379 hitting percentage, was led by freshman outside hitter Simone Bliss. The freshman from Claremont, Calif. had 18 kills in the game against the Cougars and a 0.467 hitting percentage.
In the press conference following the game, Bliss spoke about the mindset that allowed her to be successful.
“I’ve been really working on being more patient... instead of getting overeager and rushing the play,” Bliss said.
Freshman setter Natalie Aston added to that sentiment during the same press conference.
“I think what also helped was our resilience in covering each other and battling for every ball so we could get as many chances as possible,” Aston said.
The victory over Kean was the second tournament win in team history, with the first coming one year ago against Christopher Newport University.
Hopkins took on the hometown Stevenson University Mustangs in the second round of the tournament on Saturday. This match served as the Jays’ opportunity to even up the season series after the Mustangs defeated Hopkins 3-1 at Stevenson a few weeks prior.
The first set was a tight one, with Hopkins up 18-17. The Blue Jays delivered 18 kills in the set and scored seven of the next 11 points to take the set 25-21.
The Jays were in full control of the second set, not trailing once. With a 4-0 run along the way behind serves from junior libero Esther Hong, the Blue Jays won the set 25-19.
However, Stevenson then got off to a 9-2 lead in the third set and never looked back. A Hopkins injury during the set impacted the Jays’ momentum, and the Mustangs took the set 25-19.
The fourth set started off evenly matched, as Hopkins held a mere 10-9 lead. The Jays blew the set open with a 9-0 run, during which senior middle Kristi Rhead had three aces and three kills.
Back-to-back kills by outside hitters sophomore Louisa Kishton and senior Elizabeth Wuerstle clinched the victory and the school’s first ever trip to the Sweet 16.
During the postgame press conference, Rhead spoke about what it was like playing in such an intense environment where Stevenson held the home-court advantage.
“Walking into an environment like this was a great opportunity to really make it ours, make it like we were playing in our own gym, and I think we did a really great job of that,” Rhead said.
The Blue Jays’ offense was the driving force behind the school’s third-ever NCAA Tournament win. The Hopkins team had four players with double-digit kills (Bliss, Wuerstle, Rhead and Kishton). Meanwhile the Stevenson Mustangs had just one player earn double-digit kills.
In a rematch of the Centennial Conference Championship, the Blue Jays were to face the Swarthmore College Garnet in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
The match was competitive from the get-go, taking 60 points to be decided. Down 23-19, the Garnet went on a 6-1 run and, after several lead changes, won the set 31-29.
Hopkins responded in a big way, taking the next two sets 25-21 and 25-19, respectively.
The Jays’ offense exploded for 17 kills in the third set, with 11 coming from Bliss and Kishton.
Swarthmore answered back with a tough fourth set that saw 12 ties. The Garnet pulled away at the end to win the set 25-22, tying the match up at two sets apiece.
The fifth and final set started off with a nice Hopkins run, with the Jays claiming five of the first six points.
However, the Swarthmore College Garnet then went on a run of their own, taking the next eight points and not looking back. The Garnet would go on to win the set and the match.
Following the tough loss, back-to-back Centennial Conference Coach of the Year Tim Cole spoke about the resilience his team showed, despite playing less aggressively than in games past.
“We weren’t sad on the court, we weren’t mad on the court,” he said at the press conference. “I’m proud of us for that fight. I’m proud of us for that grit. That’s what we’re about.”
The Jays’ hard-fought effort was led by efforts from Kishton and Aston.
Aston was named Freshman of the Year in the North Region by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Meanwhile, Kishton had team-highs of 17 kills and 27 digs, while Aston led Hopkins with 49 assists and a 0.385 hitting percentage on six kills.
The Blue Jays’ two seniors, Wuerstle and Rhead, ended their careers with successful individual seasons.
Wuerstle led the nation in aces (105) and Rhead finished 30th in hitting percentage (0.335).
In addition to the team’s overall success, three Blue Jays received All-American Honors, including Kishton (second team), Wuerstle (third team) and Aston (honorable mention).
After winning the Centennial Conference Title, advancing as far as the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history and finishing with a 26-4 record, Hopkins concluded one of its most successful seasons in team history.
The Blue Jays set new records for consecutive wins as well as consecutive Conference titles this season.