CHICAGO – For a program that's won 250 matches in the last 10 years and reached the NCAA Division III tournament in seven of those seasons, 2017 only proved to be another solid mark in the record book for the University of Chicago volleyball squad.
The Maroons put together a 12-match winning streak, downed three nationally-ranked squads – including a Top 3 team in Emory – and reached the coveted postseason for that seventh time in team history.
Of course, with a new season comes new expectations: and hopes of a deeper run in the NCAA Tournament.
"Indeed, the NCAA Tournament is always a goal, and with the core of our team returning this fall, we will look to extend our stay," sixth-year Head Coach Sharon Dingman said.
The Maroons opened last year's campaign with a 6-3 mark before rattling off 12-straight victories that began in mid-September and lasted until mid-October. During that span, the then-unranked Maroons swept through #25 Cornell, #8 Millikin and finished their first University Athletic Association round robin unbeaten, including a commanding 3-1 win over third-ranked Emory.
Twenty-three regular-season wins proved enough to gain an at-large bid into the NCAA field, where UChicago ran into a tough Illinois Wesleyan squad in the opening round. The Maroons finished the year 23-9 overall and 5-2 in the UAA for a fourth-place finish.
With the graduation of just one senior in newest volleyball alumni Frances McDonald, UChicago comes back in what can be described as one word: loaded. A total of 11 letterwinners return, including six starters from last year's 23-win squad.
Senior outside hitter Sarah Muisenga leads the way after earning American Volleyball Coaches Association Honorable Mention All-Region and First Team All-UAA honors with 359 kills (3.21 per set), a .254 hitting percentage, 347 digs and 33 blocks.
Joining her up front is fellow senior outside Audrey Scrafford, a four-year contributor who nabbed identical all-region and all-league honors by recording 389 kills, a team-best .259 hitting percentage and 24 blocks.
"Sarah Muisenga will continue to lead our group," Dingman said. "She has been tremendous in that role for a few years already. Audrey is a fourth year who has been on the court all four years she's worn a Maroons uniform, so she should also provide guidance and leadership."
Other offensive weapons include junior outside Anabella Pinton (313 kills, 2.82 per set, 136 digs, 38 blocks), an all-UAA Second Team selection, and classmate and middle hitter Madison Pearson (223 kills, 2.03 per set, 31 aces, 113 digs, 79 blocks). Fredericka Paulson, Aasha Dave, Karina Kling, Hadley Grundman, and Mikayla Hardy also saw action up front as rookies in 2017.
Directing that offense is arguably the best rookie in the UAA in 2017, now-sophomore Emma Griffith. The setter paced the league in assists per set (10.40) and collected 1,134 in total to go along with 31 aces, 240 digs and 33 digs. Her accomplishments were recognized with First Team All-UAA accolades.
"We will rely on Emma to increase her leadership responsibilities on the court – she's our starting setter and sets an example every day of how to train, take care of yourself and how to prepare for the daily challenges."
Rounding out the returning starters are defenders Anne Marie Stifter (junior, team-best 503 digs, 29 aces) and sophomore Katherine Wilson (222 digs, 22 aces), both who played important roles to the 2017 team's success.
The Maroons' roster is loaded at 18, with five fresh faces joining in 2018. Six-foot-1 middle Audra Berg from New York, N.Y. joins outside hitters Julianna Kalil (5-foot-9, Omaha, Neb.), and Temilade Adekoya (5-foot-9, Country Club Hills, Ill.) up front. Two defenders join the mix as well in Ingrid Lam (San Ramon, Calif.) and Sara Salomon (Oklahoma City, Okla.).
"They are athletic, talented, well-skilled volleyball players that will help create very competitive practices," Dingman said. "They will make the coaches' decisions difficult."
The Maroons open the 2018 campaign at home for Labor Day weekend, hosting the annual Gargoyle Classic Aug. 31-Sept. 1 at the Ratner Athletics Center. UChicago will play four matches in two days, taking on Kalamazoo, Rose-Hulman, Cornell, and Albion.
Two other home dates are in the schedule – a rematch of the 2017 NCAA First Round against Illinois Wesleyan Sept. 11 and Oct. 26th's Senior Night celebration against Elmhurst.
The schedule doesn't bode easy: Calvin, who reached the NCAA Final Four last season (and AVCA Preseason No. 2), is a road contest Sept. 18 and the highly competitive UAA Round Robins are set for Sept. 29-30 (at Brandeis) and Oct. 13 (at Carnegie Mellon). The UAA Championship tournament is slated for Nov. 2-3 in Rochester, N.Y.
With the NCAA Tournament clearly aligned as one team goal, how do the Maroons expectations fare for a UAA title? (The last UChicago league crown came in 2013).
"Managing and executing our entire schedule will help prepare us for UAA competition," Dingman said. "The UAA is the premier conference in D-III volleyball and to win a (league) championship will require playing the best volleyball of the season – at the end of the season."