Trailing 14-7 on its home floor in the third set of the SCIAC championship game Saturday afternoon, the Athena volleyball team quickly showed why it’s a national championship-caliber squad, unleashing a furious comeback that saw Claremont-Mudd-Scripps outscore Chapman 18-3 the rest of the set and earn its third straight conference title.
The 3-0 sweep (25-13, 25-23, 25-17) was capped by Melanie Moore’s CM ’21 dramatic rejection of a Chapman player at the net, which brought the Athenas (26-3, 15-1 SCIAC) within one point of clinching the title and sent the crowd in Roberts Pavilion surging to its feet in celebration.
Moore also had three of the Athenas’ final four kills to help complete the comeback — including the match point — and was named the SCIAC Tournament Most Valuable Player soon after CMS players stormed the court and embraced following their victory.
“Melanie is our spark plug and, you can see, our emotional leader,” head coach Kurt Vlasich said after the win. “But the way she keeps herself composed — it really flows through the team. … [She] can celebrate and not make the lows too low.”
The Athenas put on a clinic against the hapless Panthers to start the game, but got sloppy at the beginning of the third set, culminating in Vlasich calling a timeout shortly after two of his players collided trying to stop a Chapman point down five.
From there, though, CMS rallied.
Errors by the Panthers stemmed the tide, and then Lina Aluzri CM ’20 had a spectacular dive to save a play, leading to an emphatic kill by Amanda Walker SC ’20 that produced a roar from the crowd.
Walker, who led the team with 12 kills in the game, followed up quickly after with two more scoring plays, and Chapman never threatened again.
“We just decided that, ‘You know what, this is our house and we’re going to dominate in our house, and that this is our title to be had, not theirs,’” said Moore, who had 10 kills and five blocks total.
The seven-point deficit, Vlasich added, was not too much of an obstacle for his team.
“This team has never looked at a scoreboard and been terribly concerned,” he said. “They know they can score points when they want to score points.”
Moore said winning the conference title was exciting, but “not the end of the road for us. It’s just the beginning in terms of opportunity.”
By dint of its tournament victory, the nation’s No. 5 team — and 2017 national champion — locked up an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
On Monday, the team learned it would be traveling to Chicago to play Washington (Mo.) University — a team CMS has beaten already this season — in the first round of the tournament Friday.
CMS didn’t overlook the Panthers, who dealt the Athenas their only conference loss of the season earlier in the year. Now, though, the team can focus on larger goals, and another national title seems within reach.
“We did it two years ago, and we have players on this roster that were on the floor for that, so we have the experience, we have the knowledge of what it takes to win,” Vlasich said. “At this point, you can’t lose any more matches. It’s win-or-go-home, and I think they’re ready for that.”