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After Elite Eight run, volleyball looks ahead

December 6, 2019

Graham Bendickson
UP, UP AND AWAY: Cori Gray ’22 leaps up for the kill in a home match against Bates earlier this season. After a historic run to the NCAA Elite Eight last month, the volleyball team is not resting on its laurels, already anticipating how the experience gained from this tournament will set up future years’ teams for success.

This season was one of highs and lows for Bowdoin volleyball. Coming hot off the heels of a run to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen and a NESCAC Championship in 2018, the Polar Bears started the season slowly, sinking to a 4-6 record near the end of September. From those depths, however, Bowdoin surged, with a 14-game winning streak, and qualified for the NCAA Elite Eight for just the second time in program history, making this season quantifiably one of the team’s finest.

New England college volleyball has traditionally been underrepresented at the national level, with teams from California and the Midwest generally dominating the tournament bracket and winner’s list. However, in the past few years, NESCAC teams—most notably Bowdoin and Tufts, who combined have qualified for the NCAA championship tournament three times in the past five years—have started to buck this trend.

The Polar Bears qualified for the NCAA Elite Eight for just the second time in program history last month, travelling to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to compete in the championship tournament. Ultimately, it was Carthage College out of Kenosha, Wisc. that ended Bowdoin’s remarkable season, defeating the Polar Bears in a three-set sweep. Carthage then lost to eventual national runners-up Emory in the semifinal.

After Bowdoin secured a thrilling victory over Tufts in the regional semifinal and a relatively easy victory over Johnson and Wales University to capture the regional title that sent Bowdoin to the finals, Carthage proved a stubborn opponent. The Polar Bears only came close in the third set, losing 25-22, but that proved too little and too late to resuscitate the team’s semifinal hopes.

“Carthage was a solid team that was very difficult to score on,” wrote Head Coach Erin Cady in an email to the Orient. “Knowing that now, I would have prepared our team for longer rallies.”

Despite losing in the first round of the championship tournament, Bowdoin’s performance is inspiring not just for the program but for the conference at large.

“The fact that in the past three years there’s been a NESCAC team in the Elite Eight shows that the conference is getting a lot stronger,” said captain Caroline Flaharty ’20.

Qualifying for the NCAA championship is a rare and exciting experience for any Bowdoin team, and the Polar Bears took full advantage of the tournament experience.

“[We tried to allow] ourselves to enjoy each moment,” wrote Cady. “We enjoyed traveling, our community outreach program with the Special Olympics, practices, the banquet and just having another opportunity to be together as a team.”

“Right from the start, it was a really special experience,” added captain Dani Abrams ’20. “Walking into the hotel, they had all these giant NCAA stickers everywhere and the room keys had NCAA volleyball written on them. Everything about it felt like it was planned to the T.”

In such a competitive setting, the challenge for Bowdoin was staying centered and focused on the game rather than the excitement of the tournament experience. The teams were given plenty of space to mingle with each other, but Abrams said it was challenging to get too friendly with future opponents.

“We talked to some of the coaches from the other teams, and everyone was friendly, but every [team] had different practice schedules and different meeting [times] and people were doing work in different spaces,” said Abrams. “There was some interaction, but everyone was in their own zone … It’s hard to strike up conversation with someone you’re about to play the next day, so you didn’t see many bonds being made, but there were definitely some fun interactions of getting to know people’s personalities.”

The Final Four remains uncharted territory for any NESCAC volleyball program. Bowdoin is the team that has made it the closest, qualifying for the Elite Eight twice. Wesleyan and Tufts have also made tournament appearances in recent years.

Making the leap from qualifying for the NCAA championship tournament to becoming one of the nation’s top four teams is on the horizon for Bowdoin, and this year’s performance will set a precedent for future teams. Experience participating in such an event, especially for underclassmen, will be vital if the team is to eclipse this fall’s performance in future years.

“Experience is one huge thing. [The 2015 team] made it to the Elite Eight, and they had that experience … but this year, none of us did,” said Abrams. “Hopefully, we’re able to break the five-year cycle and get some girls back there who have already been [to the tournament] and want more.”

“Experiencing the Elite Eight will be key to future success,” added Cady. “Not only will it motivate us to push to get back to the Elite Eight, next time we will be prepared and know what to expect.”

Led by a strong core of first years and sophomores, the team will be loaded with players who have experience not just going to, but playing in these postseason matches. First years Jaida Hodge-Adams and Ella Haugen saw significant playing time all year, and both made appearances on the court throughout the NESCAC playoffs and NCAA tournament.

With this year’s success in context, Bowdoin will surely be the team to beat in the New England region next fall. However, the Polar Bears remain unfazed by that top-dog status.

“This year, the underdog mentality and knowing we had to earn everything we were going to get … was definitely what worked for this team,” said Abrams. “I think [next year’s team] will have to work at the beginning of the season with the realization that they have a different team, and they need to find what messaging works for that team in that moment.”

One attribute remains constant: the desire to succeed and return to the NCAA championships in search of that elusive Final Four spot.

“Honestly, we are going to work to eliminate the idea that we have a target on our back and focus on how we compete,” wrote Cady. “We are so excited to get back in season!”

Editor’s Note: Caroline Flaharty ’20 is a member of the Bowdoin Orient.


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