*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a story series throughout the spring and summer called "Maroon Moments", which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – The seeds for one of 2019's biggest showdowns were first planted during the 2018 season, when the University of Chicago volleyball team headed out to Grand Rapids, Mich. to take on No. 1-ranked and undefeated Calvin University. The Maroons rose to the challenge that September evening, taking a 2-1 set lead as an upset brewed. However, the host Knights held firm to rally back for a 3-2 win.
Regardless of the final result, it marked a turning point for UChicago volleyball. Head Coach Sharon Dingman realized that something had transformed within the team in the wake of the battle with Calvin.
"Even though we lost that match after being up 2-1, that is the night we realized how good we were," Dingman said. "We always train purposefully and with a lot of energy, but after that match, it changed. Expectations increased and accountability became greater. There was a different belief in our gym."
Fast forward almost exactly one year, and it was time for UChicago to repay the favor. On Sept. 18, 2019, Calvin entered the Ratner Athletics Center gym – once again undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation. An epic match unfolded, with the No. 6-ranked Maroons ultimately emerging with a delirious 3-1 triumph (28-26, 28-26, 25-27, 27-25).
Formidable competition has become a staple of UChicago volleyball scheduling over the years. Playing in a conference with national powerhouses such as Emory University and Washington University – St. Louis, the Maroons test themselves in non-conference play as well against top teams in the region. Over the course of 2019, UChicago played five matches against opponents ranked in the top five in the nation. The difficulty of it is by design.
"Our goals are to compete for a UAA championship and a national championship," Dingman said. "To prepare for that, we have to play the best teams in the country. Our players understand how hard it is to win at the highest level and love that challenge."
The 2019 Maroons were off to a fast start, going 9-1 with six shutouts entering the showdown with Calvin. Throughout the course of the year, UChicago proved itself as one of the most balanced teams in all of NCAA Division III. By year's end, they ranked highly in the nation in kills per set (9th), digs per set (12th) and assists per set (13th). Offensively, six different players averaged at least 2.0 kills per set. The spread-of-wealth approach made it that much harder for opposing defenses to game plan.
The leader of the offense was setter Emma Griffith, who ranked in the top five nationally in assists during the 2018 and 2019 seasons. UChicago's hitters converted 22.7 percent of their swings compared to only 12.8 percent by their opponents.
With Calvin on deck, Dingman laid out to her team what they needed to excel at in order to win the midweek contest. "Our players remembered a lot from the year before and clearly understood how and why Calvin wins," Dingman said. "We knew there were components of the game where we were better and we had to capitalize on the moments when that would score points for us. We are exceptionally good on defense and in transition. So we wanted to get into a transition game and we were able to do that."
With an energetic and boisterous crowd in attendance to cheer on the home team, a battle of wills commenced from the opening serve onward. Despite facing a 16-10 deficit in the first set, the Maroons rallied back, fended off a set point and served out the final two points to secure the pivotal opener, 28-26.
As the match played out, UChicago's defense became more and more effective. The athletic court coverage cancelled out big swings from Calvin, resulting in impressive digs that allowed Griffith to immediately set up a counterattack on offense. Those transition kills were big momentum swings for the Maroons throughout the evening as the hosts looked to negate Calvin's size advantage across the net. The Knights saw their hitting percentage dwindle across the four sets, from .245 to .180 to .196 to .136.
Clutch moments late in sets were the ultimate difference. After facing a set point at 24-23 in the second frame, UChicago scored three kills to take back the advantage. Two Calvin errors later, and the Maroons grabbed the second set 28-26.
UChicago was on the verge of a sweep at 23-19 in the third. However, the Knights dug deep with six-straight points to steal the set 27-25.
Despite the setback, the Maroons remained undeterred heading into the fourth. The home side was also spurred on by the rowdy group of supporters who reacted vociferously to every point scored.
"The atmosphere in Ratner was amazing," Dingman said. "For our players to get to experience that was incredible – those are the lifetime memories. As much energy as we were getting from the crowd, it was such a great volleyball match so I'm sure the fans were gaining energy from us too."
The fourth set provided additional drama, as Calvin had yet another set point at 24-23. However, a kill and a service ace put the Maroons right back in control. The Knights tied the score at 25-25 to brush off a match point, but immediately committed a service error.
The visitors looked to the middle for senior All-American Sarah DeVries to extend the match. But her kill attempt was stuffed by first-year middle hitter Ellie Alden for a 27-25 Maroon victory. A joyous celebration on the court and in the stands immediately ignited. It marked the first win in UChicago program history over a No. 1-ranked team in the country.
"There was a tremendous amount of joy," Dingman said. "After the match when we were eating a team meal, the energy in the room was off the charts and then everyone crashed! The exhaustion set in – it was a very cool moment.
"The great thing about our team, winning that match didn't change how we operated. Once we were back in the gym, they treated it like another day 'at the office' and that we had a lot of big matches left to play."
That work ethos on the court paid off with the team's most successful season ever. For the first time, UChicago was ranked No. 1 in the national coaches poll during the regular season, while putting together a 23-match winning streak. The Maroons advanced to the third round of the NCAA Championship and three players were named All-Americans – Griffith (1st Team), middle hitter Madison Pearson (Third Team) and outside hitter Anne Marie Stifter (Honorable Mention).