On Saturday afternoon, the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps women’s volleyball team (31-5) made history, capturing its first national championship title by defeating the top-seeded Wittenberg University Tigers (27-3) in three straight sets (25-18, 25-19, 25-22) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
CMS had a tall task coming into the match – Wittenberg had only lost twice all season, was ranked first in the tournament, and had not dropped a single set in their last three matches. Even though the Athenas hadn’t lost since Sept. 23, and were carrying a 21-match win streak, this was bound to be their biggest test yet. Yet the Athenas appeared unfazed as the match began.
The first set began with a tradeoff of points between teams, and neither team appeared to have an advantage until the score was tied at 10-10, as Shelbi Stein CM ’18 tied the match up with a block. From there, Wittenberg proceeded to drop the next two points, and the Tigers’ head coach Paco Labrador called his first timeout of the match.
Although the Tigers did win the point immediately after the break, CMS then took four of the next five, breaking the set open and forcing Labrador to call yet another timeout with the score sitting at 16-12. Stein, Regan Dinovitz CM ’21, and Isabelle Taylor CM ’20 contributed kills on the run.
From there, the Athenas paced the rest of the set effectively. Led by Stein and SCIAC Athlete of the Year Margaux Arntson CM ’18, CMS didn’t step off the gas pedal, taking the set 25-18.
The second set had a similar start, with neither the Athenas or Tigers taking a commanding lead at the start, playing to a 5-5 tie through the first ten points.
CMS appeared to gain some momentum with a quick 3-0 run, capped off by a punishing kill by Dinovitz. However, the Tigers went on a run, and with sophomore Taylor Yontz serving, Wittenberg rattled off five straight points, taking a 10-8 lead.
While many coaches would’ve taken a timeout to calm their team, CMS head coach Kurt Vlasich opted to let his team play through their struggles. The Athenas answered the call, quickly turning their play around to win the next two points, with a kill by Arntson and a Wittenberg net violation.
The teams began to go blow-to-blow again, and after the next 12 points, neither team had broken through, and the score sat tied at 16.
Suddenly, the Athenas grabbed momentum and transformed their play, putting the Tigers on the ropes. They won eight of the next eleven points, pushing the score to 24-19. On set point, with a chance to put the Tigers down 2-0, Taylor delivered a vicious kill. The Athenas celebrated, knowing they were one set from making history.
At the start of the third set, it appeared as if the Athenas would be celebrating a national title sooner rather than later. They jumped out to a 6-3 lead, commanding the set from the start. However, the Tigers showed why they were the top-ranked team coming into the game, and displayed impressive skill by winning the next five points, as the Tigers’ only senior, Maddie Fischer, added two strong kills.
Up to this point, the Tigers had held CMS star Arntson to a relatively average game for the senior. Down in the third set, however, she turned into a monster and began to dismantle the Tigers point by point. Serving up punishing shots, Arntson had seven kills on the Athenas next 12 points, as CMS pushed the score to 20-14.
Only five points away from a championship, the Athenas could taste victory. But the Tigers would not go down without a fight. They clawed their way back into the game, and the score sat at 23-22, as sophomore Aubrey Cox put the Tigers within one point with a monstrous kill.
The tension of the game was palpable at this point, as both teams knew that every point was absolutely crucial.
With two points needed to win the championship in straight sets, the Athenas picked up a much-needed point as the Tigers hit the ball four times.
With the crowd on their feet, CMS supporters watched in anticipation as the ball was set to none other than Arntson on match point. She flew into the air and slammed the ball down past the Tigers, capping off an illustrious career with the ultimate achievement: a national championship.
The Athenas rushed onto the court into a frenzied celebration and lifted the NCAA championship trophy over their heads. Back in Claremont, a watch party in the packed McKenna Auditorium erupted in celebration. At long last, the Athenas were champions.
The dominant national title win was a culmination of an incredible season by the Athenas, who won the SCIAC regular season title, the SCIAC tournament, and the NCAA West Regional en route to their victory Saturday.
In its final three tournament matches, CMS only dropped three sets, in victories over Gustavus Adolphus, Ithaca, and now Wittenberg.
Arntson was named NCAA Tournament MVP after her incredible performance in the 3-0 win Saturday, in which she recorded 18 kills.
Undoubtedly, Saturday afternoon’s match will never be forgotten by Arntson and her teammates, who for the first time in program history, are now known as NCAA Champions.
Hank Snowdon CM ’21 is an economics major with a data science sequence from Columbus, Ohio. He has previously served as TSL’s editor-in-chief, managing editor and sports editor.