Experienced Volleyball Team Ready for 2017 to Start Wednesday

MEDFORD – Humble and hungry. That’s the motto the 2017 Tufts women’s volleyball team is living by this season. 

The 2016 squad finished with a 27-4 record.  They had a perfect 10-0 NESCAC regular season mark and hosted NESCAC Tournament play.  They hosted and won an NCAA Regional for the first time since 2009.  Coming off one of the best seasons in program history, this year’s Jumbos have an exciting year ahead of them.  And head coach Cora Thompson believes that if her crew stays humble and hungry, they will be in a good place. 

Second year captain Alex Garrett is ready to lead the 2017 squad

“What we did last year was exciting and amazing, but it is exactly that…last year,” head coach Cora Thompson said.  “This team is in a great place this year recognizing that we will be better for our previous experiences but will need to work even harder for a similar outcome as the landscape changes every year. Everything changes year to year and we are ready to earn every point this season by staying grounded in the present moment.”

Leading that returning crew will be senior captain Alex Garrett.  A libero and defensive specialist from Allendale, N.J., Garrett has been a staple of the Jumbos defensive efforts for three years now. Garrett finished last season with a career-high 251 digs and a team-leading 50 service aces.  With three years of Jumbo volleyball under her belt, Garrett knows what the Jumbos need to do to be successful and is in a great place to lead them there. 

“Alex Garrett brings three years of valuable experience into her leadership role,” Thompson said.  “As a second-year captain, Alex has been guiding this team since last fall and has an excellent pulse on what they need and when. She is the most selfless leader knowing that team culture is the ultimate key to our success and having already instilled and reinforced some of our most key values with our younger players this season.”

Joining Garrett in leading the Jumbos will be juniors Mackenzie Bright, Angela Yu and Katie Zheng.  Bright, an outside hitter from local Duxbury, Mass., was named the NCAA Regional Most Outstanding Player last year, and finished with the third most kills on the team (201). Yu and Zheng took care of a good majority of the setting last year, as Yu tallied 680 assists and Zheng added 128 of her own.  Yu added 253 digs, and 32 service aces, while Zheng was just behind her with 17 aces and 82 digs. 

“I could not ask for a more competitive, passionate and dedicated group than our juniors,” said Thompson.  “Not only are all three incredibly skilled players, they are so mentally focused on doing whatever our team needs to succeed and they are so supportive of Alex and our program goals. It has been amazing to see how hard they have worked over the summer and it’s clear that their efforts are going to pay off one practice and game at a time.”   

Also returning for the Jumbos is a strong contingent of sophomores that now have a year of collegiate volleyball behind them.  Libero Kelly Klimo was an All-NESCAC selection as a freshman and had a team-leading 508 digs last year.  Classmate Brigid Bell, an outside hitter from Granite Bay, Calif., led the Jumbos with 264 kills and 295 digs during her rookie campaign.  Maddie Stewart, another outside hitter from sunny California, also helped the Jumbos offensively, finishing with 118 kills. 

Heather Holz and Christina Nwankpa might have the biggest shoes to fill as the two middle hitters are looking to take the place of graduated seniors and middle hitters McKenzie Humann and Elizabeth Ahrens.  Nwankpa saw the court a good amount for the Jumbos during the beginning of the season, and Holz was called upon and stepped up big when she filled in for an injured Humann in the NCAA Regional and Elite 8 matches. 

“There is no question that our senior middles were a huge part of our success last season, but what is even more exciting is the talent we had training behind them,” said Thomspon.  “Both Christina and Heather have worked so hard to be prepared for what is now their opportunity. We don’t expect them to replace Ahrens and Humann, we expect them to be the best versions of themselves as they are very different and great middles in their own right. 

Rounding out the group of returners are Rachel Furash and Ginny Ulichney.  Furash helped Yu and Zheng with the setting last year, finishing the year with 307 assists and 89 digs.  Ulichney, also a libero and defensive specialist, helped the Jumbos during 11 sets during her rookie campaign. 

That leaves the newbies.  The Jumbos welcome four new faces to the squad.  Sophomore transfer Madison Clay comes to Medford after spending her first year at George Washington.  Clay is a defensive specialist whose sister also played volleyball for the Jumbos and graduated back in 2014. Helping the Jumbos in the middle hitting ranks will be freshman Jennifer Ryan from San Francisco, Calif.  Also new to the Brown and Blue are two outside hitters in Jordan Kron and Sophia Acker.

“We are so excited to welcome our four new rookies into the family,” Coach Thompson said.  “They are all incredibly talented bringing some of the most impressive work ethics in with them. They are versatile and passionate players who are already making their mark on this program. We are looking forward to helping them grow within our system.” 

The Jumbos have an exciting 2017 schedule ahead of them, playing some of the best competition in New England and nation wide.  After opening their season on the road on Wednesday, the Jumbos will host a two-day tournament in Cousens on Friday, September 9 and Saturday, September 10.  The Jumbos will take on Rochester Institute, Minnesota-Morris and Marymount during the two days. 

In a couple of weekends the women head out to the Midwest to play in the Barker Chevrolet Classic II in Bloomington, Ill.  There the Jumbos will take on WashU, Millikin, Illinois Wesleyan and Wisconsin Oshkosh. 

Some of the best competition the Jumbos face will be in NESCAC play.  Thompson’s squad hosts Bates and Colby the second weekend in September (9/15 and 9/16) and Hamilton and Williams the last weekend in September (9/29 and 9/30).  The lone home match in October will give the Jumbos a rematch with Middlebury, the team that edged them in the NESCAC Championship last season.  The women will travel to take on NESCAC rivals Bowdoin, Amherst, Trinity, Connecticut College and Wesleyan.

Later in October the Jumbos head out to Williamstown, Mass. for the New England Challenge.  There they will play MIT, Babson and Springfield.  In addition to those non-conference match ups and the tournament mentioned before the Jumbos also take on WPI, Endicott, Rivier and UMass-Boston this season.

“We are looking forward to our 2017 campaign where we have some of the best teams in New England and the country on our schedule,” Thompson said.  “We always say you have to play the best to be the best and every time we step on the court we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves and where we need to continue to improve. That process starts Wednesday with Clark so we are very much looking forward to it! 

A combination of veteran leadership, along with some young players that now have some college volleyball experience should be the right mix for the Jumbos this year.  Sure the goal board has a NESCAC Championship and a trip back to the Elite Eight on it.  But, for now the Jumbos will focus on the little things improving daily. If they stay in the present moment, take it point by point and match by match, the big picture will take care of itself.

“We are excited about our goals and what this team is capable of but are well aware that it won’t come easy. And we are fine with that,” Thompson remarked.  “We are prepared to work hard every chance we get earning our success. This team is one of the most cohesive groups we have ever had this early in a season so if we can nurture this team chemistry, stay humble and hungry building on our existing skill sets by challenging each other in practice--then good things lie ahead.”