CHICAGO – For the first time in recent history, the University of Chicago volleyball team will enter its fall campaign with one very big target on its back.
That's what happens a year after the Maroons set a program best for winning percentage (0.853) and hosted an NCAA regional for the first time, ever.
The good news for UChicago, though, is that the 2019 squad brings back a very, very strong core from a team that won 29 matches and reached the NCAA Second Round. Sixth-year Head Coach Sharon Dingman knows that despite an experienced roster, that doesn't mean it's going to be easy.
"Yes, we have the personnel. We have the talent and depth and competitiveness at every position," said Dingman, who snagged her 500th overall collegiate win and 100th at UChicago in 2018. "What we are lacking is the experience of starting the season as 'a team to beat.'
"Last year, we played our way into that category, this year, we will be starting there. As we continue to grow our program into a consistent nationally competitive one, this is one of the challenges we will need to learn to conquer."
Several key returners will help the Maroons meet that challenge. Not one, but two honorable mention All-Americans are back in the Maroon and White, in senior middle Madison Pearson (team-best .339 hitting percentage, 304 kills, 82 blocks, 34 aces) and junior setter Emma Griffith (1,367 assists, 396 digs, 44 aces). Griffith enters Year 3 as the Maroons' starting quarterback of the offense, and her season assist number in 2018 ranked second in all of NCAA Division III.
Seniors Anne Marie Stifter (221 kills, 328 digs) – an all-University Athletic Association honorable mention outside hitter – and fellow outside Anabella Pinton (294 kills, 92 digs) should also play big roles, as Pinton is also a two-time all-UAA selection (second team in both 2016 and 2017).
Junior Katherine Wilson (team-best 512 digs) and sophomore Temilade Adekoya (279 digs) bring back a solid defense and sophomore middle Audra Berg (112 kills, 66 blocks) learned plenty at the net in 31 matches as a rookie. Also notable: junior outside Mikayla Hardy had her best match (career-high 15 kills and 11 digs) in the Maroons' biggest contest: a hard-fought, five-set loss to Aurora in the NCAA Second Round.
Those with the most experience will be expected to fill the leadership roles of two players who finished their careers in the 1,000-kill club: former Maroons Sarah Muisenga (1,113 kills and 1,157 digs) and Audrey Scrafford (1,207 kills).
"We have some very strong personalities returning, including our co-captain from last year, Anne Marie Stifter," Dingman said. "The cool thing about this team is everyone's ability to lead in their own way and they understand how and when to use their leadership skills."
UChicago will bring three first-years into the fold in 2019, to bring the roster total to 19: Ellie Alden, a 5-foot-10 middle/outside from San Marcos, Calif.; Morgan Brandmeyer, a 5-foot-11 middle from Rolling Hills, Calif.; and Maddie Ryan, a 5-foot-11 setter from Seattle, Wash.
PLAYING THE BEST
The Maroons' schedule is sure to test them. Before UChicago takes on opponents from arguably the toughest volleyball conference in all of Division III in the UAA, the squad takes on several powerhouses in the nonconference slate.
UChicago, ranked No. 9 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) preseason poll, will face No. 13 Illinois Wesleyan (Sept. 11) on the road and then host Dubuque (a team the Maroons beat in the 2018 NCAA First Round) Sept. 14, No. 2 Calvin Sept. 18, and finally No. 10 Aurora – the squad that knocked UChicago out of the NCAAs – Sept. 28.
The annual opening-weekend tournament, UChicago's Gargoyle Classic Aug. 30-31 at the Ratner Athletics Center, doesn't feature a cupcake schedule, either. Three of the four opponents are receiving votes in the poll: Wisconsin-Stevens Point, DePauw and Texas-Dallas.
While the UAA will prove to be tough – defending conference and NCAA Division III national champion Emory is ranked No. 1, unsurprisingly – the good news is UChicago will serve host of the UAA Championship Nov. 8-9.
"This is the hardest schedule we will have played in my time at UChicago," Dingman said. "We need it. It will be challenging, fun and will certainly prepare us for the UAA."
LOOKING BACK AT HISTORY
Some teams might be put off with a disappointing result: in this case, UChicago's 2018 NCAA Second Round loss to Aurora. The Maroons lost in a heartbreaker, after taking a 2-1 lead in the match before the Spartans won a marathon Set 4, 30-28. That win stole the momentum to push the Spartans through the deciding set, 15-10. Aurora would go on to defeat Illinois Wesleyan in the regional final to advance to their first NCAA Elite Eight.
But the Maroons look at it differently: they see growth and excitement from a record-breaking season that earned them the right to host their first NCAA regional.
"Based on our players' comments following last season, they have a great mindset heading into this year," Dingman said. "The impact of how our season ended has created positive momentum for us."