For the first time in its quarter of a century history, the women's volleyball team has won the NESCAC championship title. In an almost unheard of 3-0 NESCAC final victory, the team handily defeated defending champion Middlebury last Sunday with set scores of 25-21, 25-22 and 25-17.
The top-seeded Polar Bears quickly dispatched the Panthers in the opening set. The second set, however, was closer, with the two teams trading leads every other point. Haunted by memories of a dropped second set to Trinity the day before, Bowdoin took control of the match at its most important moment, scoring three of the last four points to come out on top 25-22 to take the second set and the momentum.
The third set was a mere formality, with Bowdoin taking an early 12-3 lead before continuing on to a resounding 25-17 win to earn the team's first ever conference title in its home gym.
NESCAC Player of the Year Kristin Hanczor '12 led the team's attack with 12 kills, while Ellie Brennan '14 added nine. NESCAC service aces leader Tory Edelman '13 had seven kills and Melissa Haskell '13 contributed eight kills and 12 digs. Taylor Vail '14 led the defense with 13 digs and First Team All-NESCAC setter Sophia Cornew '14 racked up 38 assists and 10 digs.
To get to the final, though, the team had to first get past Trinity in a pulsating NESCAC semifinal. The Polar Bears eventually had too much for the Bantams to handle, winning the match three sets to one.
The dramatic match started off well for Bowdoin, with the team easily winning the first set 25-17. The second set was a different story, however, as the Bantams rebounded and forced Bowdoin to lose its only set of the tournament, 19-25. Bowdoin came back in the third with a 25-17 decision to reclaim the lead.
The fourth and final set was close from the beginning, as the two teams were neck and neck, fighting for every point until finally reaching a 24-24 tie. Bowdoin was then able to get the final two points to win the set and secure its first-ever trip to a NESCAC final.
Hanczor dominated the court with 13 kills and six blocks. Haskell also proved crucial to the effort, earning 12 kills and 15 digs. Vail once again lead the defense with 19 digs and setter Cornew finished with 40 assists and 13 digs.
The team began its path to victory last Friday in the first-round of the NESCAC tournament with an easy 3-0 win against Colby. The Polar Bears cruised into the semifinals in with set scores of 25-16, 25-16 and 25-20.
Yet all this seems to have come somewhat out of the blue. Prior to this year's phenomenal achievements, Bowdoin had never won a game in the NESCAC tournament, let alone the whole thing. According to Jeff Ward, director of athletics, this year's success is a direct result of Head Coach Karen Corey's recruiting and development strategies.
In terms of recruiting, it's meant reaching out to farther parts of the country. The current makeup of the team is not as northeast-centered as it used to be, with a strong core now coming from the West Coast.
"We certainly recruit there," said Ward. "Taylor [Vail], Sophia [Cornew] and Margot [Roux '14] are all from California."
Yet for Ward, the greatest work has really been in development.
"Karen's done a really good job of getting some people, Kristin's a great example, who probably were not from really strong volleyball backgrounds, and really helped them develop and grow as players here," he said. "Karen's just done a really good job of building the program as a whole."
Ward also attributed the team's success to Bowdoin's overall improvement in facilities over the past 10 years.
"The athletic facilities as a whole went from being in the bottom third of the league to being in the top third of the league, and that has an impact on everybody," he said.
Despite having all the ingredients for success, luck is an integral aspect for many successful programs, and it was no different for Bowdoin. Ward admitted that for all the planning and renovations, finding "that Karen lived in this community was pure luck."
However, winning a NESCAC title does not have to be the end of what's already a great season. Starting today, Bowdoin will be competing in the NCAA's national championship regionals at Springfield College. While the teams will invariably be tougher than those in the NESCAC and the sets harder to win, Bowdoin's first opponent is definitely beatable.
The Polar Bears' first-round opponents are from Baruch College (24-10), a campus of the City University of New York. This will be the first-ever meeting between the two teams and there are no mutual opponents to speak of, so it is hard to draw any conclusions based on history.
"Baruch is a very similar program to us, with a balanced attack," Corey said. "They don't make a lot of errors, so that will be a challenge, and what we really need to focus on is our passes."
"I think that experience alone will influence the girls a little bit," she added. "We're going to try to keep the hype about it down so they stay comfortable in the match."
Bowdoin has an easy win at least on the basis of mascots, as bearcats are more or less glorified housecats. And like housecats, Baruch has struggled away from home, with a record of 16-9 that suggests Springfield might be exactly where the Polar Bears want to play them.
Sam Weyrauch contributed to this report.