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Peaking at the right time, volleyball looks to NESCACs

November 8, 2019

Graham Bendickson
UP AND OVER: Sophia Pahl ’22 rises above the net for a kill in the team’s victory over Bates last weekend. The team is riding a 12-game win streak into the NESCAC playoffs and hopes to repeat as conference champions this weekend.

After a hesitant start to its season, the Bowdoin volleyball team is hitting its stride at the right time. A sweep of Bates and Colby last weekend extended the team’s winning streak to 12 games and secured the third NESCAC tournament seed. Hopes are high as all of the pieces seem to be coming together ahead of championship weekend, which starts with a quarterfinal matchup against Willams tonight.

Last season was a historic one for the Polar Bears. The team finished with a 29-2 overall record and brought home the NESCAC championship, advancing to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen for the second time in program history. Coming off the heels of such a superlative year, this fall’s initial results raised doubts about whether the team could come close to replicating last year’s historic success. Despite being ranked 23 in the nation in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) preseason poll, the team started with an underwhelming 4-6 record.

“Confidence [was something we struggled with],” said Cori Gray ’22, a middle blocker. “When have we ever in so long had a season like last season? And I think that was on everyone’s minds, just how are we going to top that? The confidence to be a new team and not just halfheartedly fill the gaps [from last year] but to really rise up and be better … was big.”

All but one of the team’s six early losses were 3-0 sweeps. However, Head Coach Erin Cady said that the slow start was not a product of any one major shortcoming, but instead due to the team needing time to find its groove.

“In the beginning of the year it was a lot of working out kinks,” said Cady. “So what we had was a lot of players having amazing games but not all at once. No one was particularly playing bad, but we [struggled to find a time] where everyone was playing great at once.”

After losing a record-setting graduating class last year, including NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year and Second-Team All-American Lisa Sheldon ’19, adjusting to a new roster was bound to take time. Finally, in a key mid-season matchup against national number five-ranked Johnson and Wales University, the stars aligned—and since then, the Polar Bears haven’t looked back.

“We had gotten swept by Tufts the night before … and Coach [Cady] was saying, ‘if we keep playing like this were not going to win,’” said Gray. “One of our captains, Dani [Abrams ’20], said, ‘screw this let’s just win. Why act like we’re going to lose?’… and we did [win]. We had been talking about firing on all cylinders—making sure each one of us steps up and does our part—and that was a good example of firing on all cylinders.”

Since that game, Bowdoin has won 12 straight to close out the regular season, the most thrilling of which was a 3-2 comeback win over Williams in front of a packed crowd in Morrell Gym at the annual Dig Pink game on October 4.

Hosted by Tufts and away from the support of the home crowd, today’s rematch with Williams will have a different tone than October’s dramatic affair. But despite the team’s dominant performance down the stretch, Gray explained that the winning mentality has been a sticking point.

“We do a good job of keeping an underdog mentality. We had it all last season, regardless of our record, and we earned an underdog status [this year] as we got more wins following our losses at the beginning of the season,” said Gray.

“When you come to NESCAC playoffs, you pretty much wipe clean anything from the past and start over,” added Cady. “What’s nice at this point is [that] we have more of a scout, so we’re able to watch more film on what Williams is up to and then also more film on ourselves, so were able to see what we can be stronger at.”

Riding the coattails of one of the most successful seasons in program history, this year’s team has emerged from early setbacks and managed to shape its own identity. In Gray’s eye, that shared ethos and love of the game and each other is what makes this team so great.

“I love this family so much,” said Gray. “Something that sets us apart is that everyone wants so badly to be in the gym and wants so badly to get every rep … I feel very confident in the attitudes that everyone has towards the sport. I’m excited to send a message to the NESCAC.”

The Polar Bears will kick off championship weekend against Williams tonight at 7:30 p.m..

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