Coming off of a riveting 3-1 win over their rivals No. 4 California Lutheran University (12-3, 3- 1 SCIAC), the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Athenas (12-0, 4-0 SCIAC) continue to prove why they hold down SCIAC and the No. 2 spot in the nation.
At the heart of this stellar squad, which returns five All-Conference selections, two All-West Region accolades, and one All-American honor for Nicole Kerkhof CM ’17, are sister setters Clara Madsen CM ’18 and Phoebe Madsen CM ’20.
In their win over defending national champions Cal Lu, the Madsens racked up 32 and 22 sets, respectively. Ranked sixth in SCIAC for sets, Clara leads the Athena offense with 292 assists, adding seven service aces and 136 digs, while Phoebe, ranked eighth in SCIAC, totals 186 sets, seven service aces, and 78 digs.
Last season, Clara led the team to its first SCIAC Championship and second round of the NCAA tournament, thus earning herself a spot on the All-SCIAC Second Team. Phoebe joined the team after being named the CIF Southern Selection Player of the Year while playing outside hitter for their high school, Laguna Blanca High School.
Pitting two competitors up against one another for playing time on a nationally competitive team, especially with the added conflict of sibling rivalry, seems like a recipe for disaster.
“That was actually my concern when she was being recruited, that we would have to compete for playing time,” Clara said.
“Typically in running a 6-2 [offense], there is always competition between the setters to see who has more sets, even if you don’t say it, but our roles are very set,” said Phoebe. “Because we’re sisters, I feel like that’s just not something that we do.”
Fortunately for the team's (and their parents’) sake, positional conflict hasn’t been a problem for these two. At 5’6” and 5’8”, the Madsen sisters share court time in the Athenas’ 6-2 offense, in which the setter always sets from the back row in order to keep three hitters in the front.
“The Madsen sisters are a coach’s dream,” said head coach Kurt Vlasich, who is in his sixth year at CMS. “Clara has two years of experience, and rather than competing against her sister, she chooses to share her knowledge and experiences with her. They work hard to make our offense consistent and unique.”
It’s hard not to talk about consistency without mentioning the similarities among the two. Not only do they often get mistaken for each other in public, but they also share the same techniques and mannerisms on the court.
“We set very similarly, so it makes it easy to transition between the two for our hitters,” Clara said.
Besides making it easier for the hitters, the ability to watch each other off the court also aids the sisters in improving their individual games.
“When I see [Phoebe] make an error, it’s an error that I also make, so I can finally see [and correct] it,” she added.
The sisters are like mirror images, but both have their own strengths and weaknesses. Phoebe explains that Clara is better at watching the block in order to make a perfect decision before she sets, while Clara praises her younger sister for her boldness in setting hitters from the other side of the court. For both, playing with her sister is as much of a learning experience as it is fun.
“[College] is such a different level and it brings us so much closer,” Phoebe said. “That’s definitely a big reason for coming.”
Of course, having a pair of sisters on the team makes the experience special for all. Clara explains how having Phoebe on the team has bridged the gap between the upperclassmen and first-years.
“They’re no longer just ‘the freshmen,’ but my sister’s friends,” Clara said.
The Athena family plays at the California Institute of Technology (1-8, 0-4 SCIAC) tonight, September 30, and will host Whittier College (4-10, 2-3 SCIAC) Saturday, Oct. 1, at 4:00 p.m. in Roberts Pavilion.