The Hopkins volleyball team played its first set of NCAA tournament games this past weekend. Playing three games in three days, the team faced off against the Manhattanville College Valiants, the Stockton University Ospreys and the Stevens Institute of Technology Ducks. Hopkins sought to continue their undefeated streak and begin their march towards an NCAA championship.
Sophomore middle blocker Eleni Panagopoulos commented on the team’s preparation.
“We focused on approaching this weekend’s games with the same mentality that we have had all season, which means treating each game and each set like a national championship,” she said. “To prepare for this weekend, we spent a lot of time scouting the other teams and working on our game plan. We knew each team would present its own challenges and we really had to make sure we were ready for each of their strengths. In addition to film, we spent some time in practice working on small improvements we could make while also taking a low number of reps to keep our bodies fresh.”
The Blue Jays faced off against the Valiants in the first round on Friday, Nov. 15. As is often the case in first round matchups, there wasn’t much of a fight. Hopkins scored the first seven points of the first set, setting the tone for the entire game. Junior outside hitter Simone Bliss scored kills on three of the first seven points. After a six-point run later in the set, the score was already 20-4. Bliss finished the set 25-9 with another kill.
The second set started similarly, with Hopkins up 7-1 early. Already, Panagopoulos had scored three kills. But this set saw more of the same, and senior outside hitter Louisa Kishton finished the set 25-9 with a kill of her own.
Manhattanville was able to bring themselves within six points with the score at 15-9 in the third set. But Hopkins sucked the life out of the Valiants by scoring 10 unanswered points to end the set 25-9, winning the game as well. Bliss and sophomore middle blocker Lauren Anthony both had 10 kills while junior setter Natalie Aston had 35 assists. This game marked the Blue Jays’ historic 30th win in a row.
The Blue Jays moved on to play Stockton on Saturday. The first set proved to be a challenge for Hopkins. After an attack error by the Blue Jays, the Ospreys were up 9-6. Hopkins later went on an 11-2 run, sending them ahead. This momentum was enough to propel them to victory, as Panagopoulos scored a kill to win the set 25-20.
To start the second set, the two teams traded the first eight points. A six-point run brought Hopkins up to a 15-11 lead. Panagopoulos finished the set off with a kill, making the score 25-20. The third set featured more back-and-forth scoring. With the score at 14-10 Hopkins, Bliss scored a kill to begin a scoring run that secured the set for Hopkins. Lauren scored the final kill of the game, as Hopkins won 25-16.
Bliss scored 16 kills in the game and Panagopoulos had 15 as well. Aston had 40 assists.
Panagopoulos explained the effect of having three games in three days.
“By game three I definitely think we are a bit more fatigued than when we began the weekend,” she said. “However, we have all been working so hard to build up our endurance all season through lifts and challenging practices while also prioritizing recovery throughout the season. It’s a bit tough as a small team since we all get so many reps but this is what we’ve worked towards all off and preseason, so we were physically well prepared going into this weekend. Strategy changes depending on the team we are playing and what their strengths and weaknesses are. This mainly changes the shots we make and the defenses we run but we discuss all the changes in film and scouting.”
Then the Blue Jays headed to the Sweet 16 to play Stevens on Sunday. Hopkins hadn’t dropped a set all weekend and intended to keep that streak alive. In the first set, Bliss scored three of the Blue Jays’ first four points. But the scoring continued on both sides, and the two teams found themselves tied at 16 points each. The Blue Jays ended the set on a four-point run and won it on an attack error by the Ducks.
The second set was perhaps the toughest playoff set the Blue Jays have had to get through. The Ducks had tied the game 25-25. Panagopoulos scored a kill to put Hopkins ahead, but a service error tied the game again. Panagopoulos scored again to give the Blue Jays the advantage. To end the game, Hopkins got a point off of a Ducks attack error.
In the third set, Hopkins made sure the score didn’t end up so close. With the score at 10-9 Stevens, Bliss scored two kills to bring Hopkins out front. Three mistakes by the Ducks increased the Blue Jays’ lead. The set also featured a four-point run with a Panagopoulos kill and three more errors by the Ducks. With the score at 22-18, Hopkins ended the game on a three-point run with a service ace by Anthony.
Bliss scored 17 kills in the game and Aston got 32 assists. Hopkins is now headed to the Elite Eight after winning the regional title. Bliss was named MVP of the region.
Panagopoulos looked back at the team’s success so far.
“We really don’t focus on the number of wins we have but at the same time it’s hard to not notice how amazing this season has been for us,” she said. “I think the success just represents all the work we have put into this season not just on the court, but also on building confidence and trust with each other. We are such a close team and being able to play another day together means everything to us.”
Hopkins has not lost a set since Oct. 17. This is also the farthest into the NCAA tournament that a Hopkins volleyball team has ever gotten.