The Hopkins volleyball team left Baltimore with one thing in mind: a national championship. The Jays swept their way through the regional tournament and arrived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa as the second overall seed in the Elite Eight, looking to continue their historic season.
Senior outside hitter Louisa Kishton shared the team’s attitude as they arrived at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Quarterfinals.
“When we got to Iowa, I think a lot of us had a feeling of gratitude,” she said. “Especially for me and [senior middle blocker] Hannah Korslund, having our volleyball careers extended by one more week was really awesome.”
The Jays started their trek to the finals against the College of Saint Benedict Bennies with the same intensity as they’d had all season.
They opened the first set with a dominant run, giving them a 13-7 lead off the strength of three huge blocks at the net.
The Bennies clawed their way back to even the set at 19, but the Jays shut the door on them, closing down the set with a kill by Kishton, giving them the 25-22 victory.
The next set began with the same type of control, as the Jays jumped out to a 13-5 lead, featuring an ace from sophomore middle blocker Eleni Panagopoulos and two kills from junior setter Natalie Aston. Saint Benedict crawled back once again, but a kill from junior outside hitter Simone Bliss pushed the set out of reach, and they eventually won it 25-17.
The third set was as straightforward as can be, with the Jays dominating from start to finish. They won the set 25-14, with five kills from Bliss and two aces from junior libero Nicole Hada. The sweep punched the Jays’ ticket to their first ever Final Four appearance, where they faced Trinity College (Texas).
The match began with an unusual start, with the Jays committing a rotation error that put them in an early hole. However, unbothered and unconcerned, they stormed back, continuing with the same quality performance they have shown all season. They went point for point with Trinity, eventually capturing the first set 25-22.
Hopkins settled in from there, controlling the second set, just as they had all season. They took the second set 25-16, then took a 12-6 lead in the third set. At this point, they looked well on their way to advancing to the national championship match.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
Hada dove to return the ball, as she did all season. Once she hit the ground, she let out a cry that broke the hearts of her teammates and fans alike. She was helped off the court with an injury to her shoulder, which was the same injury that kept her out of 15 matches earlier in the season.
The injury was devastating, not only because the team lost Hada, but because the Blue Jay roster only consists of 10 players, and needs everyone at full strength. With their minds on Hada, they had to continue the match, with junior opposite hitter Morgan Wu stepping into the libero role, as she’d done earlier in the season.
The Jays, in shock following the injury, dropped the third set 25-21, their first lost set in three weeks. However, that was the wake up call that they needed. Hopkins snapped back into form, and dominated the fourth set.
Bliss and Kishton poured in 13 combined kills in the fourth set, and sophomore middle blocker Lauren Anthony added two aces as the Jays won the set 25-17, punching their ticket into the Division-III National Championship game.
But with the loss of Hada, there was the question of how the Jays would move forward without their on-court leader. However, Korslund quelled any fears of a drop-off in performance.
“Hada played such a key role in our championship run and we knew it would be tough without her,” she said. “But, we all had complete faith in Morgan and felt comfortable going back to the original lineup, even though we were missing Hada.”
The Jays entered the championship game against the No. 1-ranked, defending champion Emory University Eagles, who had topped the rankings for the entire season. A normal team would be worried or nervous for the match, considering the circumstances. But Kishton made it clear that she had no concerns heading into the final showdown.
“It was just time to ball out,” she said. “Last game of the season, nothing to lose.”
Korslund echoed the sentiment, saying that the team had a feeling of excitement, rather than nervousness.
In what had the potential to be their toughest match of the season, the Jays went about like it was business as usual. Aston opened the match with an ace, as she had done all season, and gave Hopkins a comfortable 5-0 lead.
The Eagles scratched their way back into the game, bringing the score to 14-13. Then, in a manner reminiscent of a prizefight, the two teams went blow-for-blow the rest of the game, with the first set resting on a match point for the Jays. The set culminated in a wild rally, with Bliss digging a ball from the hardwood and placing it right into the back line to give the Jays the opening set.
The second set was just as tightly contested, but the Jays were able to capture the pivotal game in the same manner as they had all season. They capitalized on their opponents’ misses and minimized their own, winning the set 25-22.
It seemed as though the match became easier and easier for Hopkins. In what ended up being the final set, the Jays hit at an ultra-efficient 0.500 clip, and only committed one error. They secured the championship point off of a textbook dig-set-kill, punctuated by Kishton. The final kill of her career gave them the third set 25-18, the program’s first National Championship and a perfect 35-0 season.
The team as a whole performed at the highest level they possibly could, and Bliss was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Championship after notching a ridiculous 21 kills in the championship match.
As the only two seniors on the team, Kishton and Korslund shared their thoughts on what it felt like cap their illustrious careers off with a National Championship.
“It was cool seeing it all come together with the National Championship, but there was also so much more to this season and our careers than that,” Kishton said.
“It was definitely a cool feeling to see all the confetti and know that we’d won it all,” Korslund said. “I’m proud of my career for more than just winning it all though, and am really grateful for all my coaches and teammates over the past four years.”
In a magical season, the 2019 Blue Jay volleyball team showed themselves to be what we all knew they were: flawless.