Over the past weekend, the defending national champion Claremont-Mudd-Scripps women’s volleyball team (10-2, 1-0 SCIAC) hosted the first-ever, prestigious East-West Challenge at Roberts Pavilion, beating Emory University (3-1) and University of Texas, Dallas (3-2), but suffered a loss to Washington University in St. Louis(1-3).
The East-West Challenge, which will ‘swap coasts’ every year, features six teams from across the country ranked top 30 in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association coaches’ poll. The challenge was the brainchild of head coach Kurt Vlasich, who said formalizing it required a collective effort among coaches in Division III.
“[It] was a tournament I put together in concept a few years ago, and worked with some of my colleagues who are good friends to basically showcase the highest level of volleyball in Division III,” Vlasich said. “You know that every single match is going to be high-level, and in terms of rankings and positioning, it can only help these teams to play each other rather than struggle to find teams to play in the pre-seasons.”
Entering the tournament, the Athenas were ranked No. 3 nationally with a 7-1 record after winning all four matches they played in Trinity, Texas, the previous weekend.
The visit to the Lone Star State had set the tone for the East-West Challenge home games, Vlasich said. For the Athenas, schools like UT Dallas must continue to stay on the team’s radar, due to their proximity and the postseason implications that come with that.
“[Of the weekend], the match, for me, that was really important was the UT Dallas match,” Vlasich said. “We have to think more in terms of the region, not just our national ranking. On top of just beating UT Dallas at our tournament, being in Texas the weekend before and winning all our matches against those Texas schools was incredibly important because we’ve positioned ourselves in a manner where we can host the regional if we continue to do well.”
The Athenas had a stellar showing against the Comets, with a particularly powerful performance from Phoebe Madsen CM ’20. The junior ended the contest by finishing her fifth kill of the set and 11th of the match, clinching the 3-2 win.
However, UT Dallas was not the only heart-racing match of the weekend.
CMS started the weekend with a contest against No. 6 Emory, and the two top-ranked teams battled all match. While the Athenas led 2-1 in the fourth set, Emory held a 22-19 lead, and were on the verge of forcing a fifth set. However, they were able to step on the gas and go on a 6-0 run to win the match. The victory was highlighted by Melanie Moore’s CM ’21 solo block to end the match strong.
“I think when it comes down to the last point, it’s just all about energy and about heart,” Moore said to CMS Athletics. “You just go for it, and if you get it, you get it. That’s what we play for. We play for each other, and I think that’s what it’s all about.”
For team captain and junior Sarah Tritschler CM ’19, the Emory game was definitely the most exciting — not only competitively, but also in terms of fan support and energy.
“We lost to them last year in preseason when we played them in their home gym, and this year we were given the chance to even the score,” Tritschler said. “We were ranked third nationally and they were sixth, so it was inevitably going to be a big match because we are both top-10 teams. We knew it was going to be a battle, so we got a bunch of fans and friends to come to the game for support, so it was really exciting, feeling all of the energy in the gym that day.”
While the final game of the weekend against Washington University of St. Louis resulted in a loss, the Athenas still ended on a powerful note.
During the second set, in danger of falling behind 2-0, the Athenas stormed back from a 17-11 deficit and won 25-20 to tie the match 1-1, according to CMS athletics. However, the Athenas dropped the next two sets 25-18 and 25-21.
Despite the loss, multiple players had big games, including 15 kills from Amanda Walker SC ’20, seven blocks by Lauren Gode CM ’21, and 12 digs by Sarah Tritschler CM ’20.
Despite the high tension and high stakes, the Athenas were hardly discouraged by the loss, Tritschler said.
“We decided to look at our preseason as a whole rather than at specific matches, because we did what no one expected,” she said. “We did well, with one of the hardest and [most] packed preseason schedules of any Division III team.”
Coach Vlasich echoed Tritschler’s sentiments, focusing on the bigger picture.
“You’re tired, you’re beat up, we’re extremely injured right now, and we’re playing players that haven’t seen a lot of court time in terms of playing these high level teams,” Vlasich said. “So to battle like we did, to put away a couple of victories, and put on a good show against WashU, I’m incredibly proud. Incredibly happy.”
As the team looks on, preparing for the upcoming SCAIC conference slate, Vlasich said he isn’t too concerned about the team living up to the expectations of last year’s National Champion team.
“While there are players on the roster that were in that national championship match, they understand that that was last year, and this is this year,” Vlasich said. “My favorite part about being in the gym so far with this group of young women is that they’ve clearly made it their own identity — they’re not banking on what happened last year in order to be successful this year. They’re trying to create their own success.”
Ultimately, players like Tritschler are putting the pressure upon themselves to take the team to new heights, rather than focus on the past.
“Every team knows we’re the reigning national champions, and they play like it,” Tritschler said. Everyone plays their best game against us, making every match, no matter who’s on the other side of the court, an intense battle. We all want to do our best and win again, but we have to realize we’re a completely new team this year, especially after having graduated eight seniors from last year’s team.”
The Athenas are slated to return to the court Sept. 22, playing against Redlands University (6-5) at home.