Regional champion Athena volleyball stages comeback of the year, making their way to NCAA semis

The Athenas celebrate as a team, pictured here in an Oct. 8 home game against Chapman. (Nanako Noda • The Student Life)

Backs against the wall and trailing two sets to nothing in the NCAA Division III regional final, the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps women’s volleyball team looked hopeless against Wartburg’s roaring crowd.

But after staging a 5-0 scoring run in the middle of the third set to make it 19-15 in favor of CMS, the Athenas climbed back into the game. Riding the momentum, the scoring wave carried them through the rest of the match, recording three consecutive set wins and completing the improbable comeback. 

“If this wasn’t the best volleyball match of the game, I don’t know what could be,” head coach Kurt Vlasich said in a press conference following the win. “We knew from the get-go that this was going to be a tough environment with their home crowd; all credit to the players for bringing home this gutsy victory.”

Considering the pivotal nature of the match, multiple Athenas recorded career-high stats. Most notably, right side Brenna Bell CM ’25 had an 18-kill standout performance to lead the Athenas, while outside hitter Jenna Holmes CM ’24 matched that total and earned a career-high 30 digs. 

Other impressive showings included libero Dede Carranza’s CM ’25 career-high 38 digs and double-digit kill contributions from outside hitter Jackie Jones CM ’22 and right side Melanie Williams CM ’22, recording 16 and 15 respectively. 

Knocking off the fourth-best team in the country in Wartburg, the Athenas handed the Knights their first and most crucial loss of the season. But considering the first two sets of the match, this outcome initially seemed unimaginable. 

The regional championship match began with the Athenas and Knights trading blow for blow, featuring mini scoring runs from each side. Neither side was able to separate themselves from the other by more than four points during the opening set. 

Mainly featuring kills from Jones, Williams and Holmes, the Athenas remained in striking distance of the Knights and stretched out the first frame to multiple set points. CMS ultimately folded the set point after a 4-1 run from Wartburg following a 25-25 deuce. 

The second frame proved drastically different, as the Knights came out after the break with strong determination to take a dominant 2-0 lead. Wartburg began the set with a 8-3 scoring run, capitalizing on multiple attack errors from Athena hitters and producing their own strong kills that left the CMS defense stunned. 

Despite faltering early, the Athenas climbed back into the set by staging an 8-4 scoring run of their own behind three key kills from Bell, bringing the deficit to within a single point. Immediately after this momentum change, Wartburg responded with another big 7-3 run, eventually holding on to win the set by five points.

Similar to the first set, the third frame featured a similar back-and-forth affair with the teams trading scores with one another. Especially in this set, the teams traded fierce rallies driven by top-notch defensive plays, each side demonstrating numerous tough digs. 

“I’ve just never seen anything like [this defensive performance] before,” Vlasich said. “Tonight was just a great performance where both teams fed off each other; it was just fun to be a part of, whether they were digging us or whether we were digging them because that energy really translated.” 

Toward the latter half of the set, CMS built momentum through key blocks and kills to stay within striking distance of Wartburg, maintaining a close score. After building a rhythm featuring pairs of key kills from Jones and middle blocker Audrey Sawyer CM ’25, the Athenas executed a 5-0 run to close out the third frame and earn their first set point.

With this drastic shift in momentum, CMS dominated the fourth set with an overwhelming offensive barrage. The Athenas pounced on the Knights and opened a lead that grew to 11 points, closing out the frame by a margin of seven. 

In the final dramatic set, the Athenas maintained a three-point lead throughout, featuring the efforts of Jones and Williams. After going ahead 13-9 on a clutch Williams kill and two points away from becoming the champions, Wartburg stormed back to knot up the game at 13 apiece.

Following this stalemate, CMS and Wartburg proceeded to exchange four kills in back-to-back fashion, with two kills from Holmes followed by two from her Knight counterpart. Bell spiked the two most important kills of her career thus far, pushing the Athenas over the hump and allowing them to win the final set 18-16.

In the postgame press conference, Williams expressed her thoughts about the cohesion of the team, a key factor that allowed them to become victorious. 

“Every person trusted everyone, we got energy from people on the court and off the court, everyone contributed to the win,” the outside hitter said. “I’ve never been a part of a team [where] everyone loves each other and is so great at volleyball; it’s awesome to be a part of this team in that way.” 

After being declared regional champions, the Athenas faced the Berry Vikings in the Sweet 16. Featuring a balanced offense led by Sawyer with 13 kills and another stellar 26 dig performance by Carranza, CMS comfortably edged out Berry 3-1.

The Athenas, moving onto the semifinals, will either play Trinity or Calvin, two teams they have seen already this season. 

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