MEDFORD – The Tufts women's volleyball team has been together and practicing for about a week. And on Tuesday night they will get to test what they have been working on and see where they are as a team early in the season.
The Jumbos will open their 2018-19 campaign on Tuesday night against Clark at home in Cousens Gym and while the Jumbos will take the season one practice at a time and one match at a time, they will be working towards playing their best volleyball in November with hopes of capturing a NESCAC Championship and advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season.
"This season we want to focus on the present moment and on what our game looks like on our side of the net," senior co-captain Mackenzie Bright said. "Staying in the 'here and now' is something that we as a team can always be better at, and it will help us be focused and ready for our tougher matches."
Staying in the here and now has always been a staple of the Tufts volleyball team, and almost needs to be as the Jumbos are challenged playing the best competition in New England and also nationally. Last season the Jumbos traveled to the Midwest to play out of region competition, and this year they will head down south for a trip. The good news is, they welcome back nearly every player from last year's team and eight of this year's 15 were on the team that advanced to the Elite Eight two years ago.
They biggest loss from last year's team comes in defensive specialist Alex Garrett to graduation, but the Jumbos welcomed her to the coaching staff so she is still with the program. Garrett will be there to help seniors Mackenzie Bright and Katie Zheng in guiding a solidly experienced Jumbo squad.
"Our returners have experience playing at the high level that we see in every team in our region, and they know what it means to play on our Tufts volleyball team," Bright said. "We always aim for this veteran presence to incorporate our rookies quickly—they are a crucial part of our team and help us play at the next level."
Bright, a co-captain for this year's team, was the kill leader for the Jumbos last season, finishing the season with 306 and averaging 2.73 kills per set. The Jumbos welcome back their top five offensive players, as outside hitters Brigid Bell and Maddie Stewart (also a co-captain this season) and middle hitters Heather Holz and Christina Nwankpa are all back for their junior campaigns. Bell finished last season with 238 kills and 237 digs, Nwankpa added 205 kills and a team-high 106 blocks, Stewart turned in 201 kills and 72 blocks and Holz finished the season with 182 kills and 102 blocks. The Jumbos should be strong at the net with this veteran core back.
"We are excited for the start of this 2018 chapter as we return with an experienced group of veterans across the board," head coach Cora Thompson said. "This will help us be balanced mentally and physically while incorporating the rookies quickly."
Sophomores Sophia Acker, Jennifer Ryan and Jordan Kron are all also back for their second season wearing Brown and Blue and can contribute to the offensive and defensive efforts this season. Freshman outside hitter Cate Desler and rookie middle hitter Gracie Jendrezak should also be able to help the Jumbos at the net this year.
Junior Madison Clay is back and will anchor the defensive efforts for the Jumbos. Sophomore Rachel Furash and freshman Ariel Zedric, along with Zheng will take care of the setting for the Jumbos. Furash finished with 567 assists with a 5.40 assists per set average last season, and also added 156 digs, 64 kills and 40 service aces to her efforts.
"What's exceptional about this group is the fact that they are all so versatile," Thompson said. "We have a lot of options defensively and offensively that will help us compete in different ways with different strengths throughout the season"
The Jumbos have their work cut out for them from the start. After opening their season at home on Tuesday they will travel to Georgia for the Emory National Tournament, where they will face off with Oglethorpe, Otterbein, Berry and host Emory. In the preseason American Volleyball Coaches Association national poll Otterbein was receiving votes and Berry was ranked No. 25 with Emory at No. 5. The Jumbos were also receiving votes.
In addition to traveling to take on some of the best in the country the Jumbos will take on the best in New England with non-conference matches against Johnson & Wales, Brandeis, Endicott, Roger Williams, Wellesley, UMass-Boston, Babson and Springfield. Tufts has finished the NESCAC regular season 10-0 the past two years and will look to stay perfect in NESCAC regular season play and host the NESCAC Tournament for the third straight year. But, this year the Jumbos will hope to bring home the hardware.
"Certainly, we are proud of our prior team efforts and successes," said Thompson. "But right now we are very focused on the present moment and the growth of this 2018 team as we figure out who we are this season."
While the Jumbos will play a competitive schedule, right now they are focused on the last few days of practice they have before they open up on Tuesday. And then it will be set by set and match by match and they will work to get better every day so they are at their best come tournament time.
"Every season is a special journey and we are excited to take it one moment at a time, invest in our growth mentally and physically, and see where we are at in a few months," Thompson said. "I have no doubt this group will give each other everything they have as we push to be the best we can."