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November 5, 2010

Volleyball sets sights on league championship

Three years ago, winning the UAA championship was barely on the volleyball team’s radar.

This weekend, it is an expectation.

The 21st-ranked Maroons will take the court against Rochester and Case in Cleveland this afternoon, as the team begins its quest for the program’s first conference title.

“When we do everything right, we’re a pretty dangerous team,” head coach Vanessa Walby said. “If we just come together and feel good about the play that we’ve done, I think we’ll do pretty well this weekend. The big thing is that everyone does their job and everyone plays with a lot of high energy.”

Prior to last season, the Maroons had finished in the bottom half of the conference in 12 consecutive seasons, including five last-place finishes.

But last season’s UAA Championships were a different story.

With the conference tournament at home, Chicago won its first two matches and came within two points of upsetting then-defending NCAA champs Emory in the semifinals. The South Siders emerged with their best finish since 1996 and plenty of reason for optimism heading into this season.

“As soon as the season ended last year, we were in the gym the next week working on our off-season workouts,” third-year Isis Smalls said. “We were so fired up from that loss [to Emory], going into spring season we worked pretty hard and even harder over the summer, and we came in in the best shape I’ve seen everybody as a team.”

The Maroons have shown signs of improvement throughout the season, posting a .228 hitting percentage (up from .192 a year ago) with higher block totals on defense. Setting consistency as a goal this year, the South Siders have performed better in five-match contests this year, going 7–2 in those matches, and the squad avoided the midseason slump that plagued them the previous two seasons.

In a perfect world, the rest of the UAA wouldn’t have gotten better, too.

Third-ranked Emory, the tournament’s top seed, enters this weekend riding a 10-match winning streak and is looking for its fourth conference title in six seasons. The Eagles have finished no lower than third since 1994.

Seeded behind them is NYU, a team that looked nearly invincible at the UAA Round Robin three weeks ago. The Violets, who the Maroons upset for third place at UAAs last year, have gone 32–4, including losses to the second and third-ranked teams in the nation and a signature win over top-ranked Wash U.

If anything is representative of the UAA’s depth, it’s the fact that both of the Bears’ losses this season have come to conference opponents (NYU and Case).

“It’s extremely competitive,” Smalls said. “Nothing is given; you have to fight for every game. There’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also a lot of fun.”

More than bragging rights are on the line this weekend, as the UAA champion earns an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. This season could be the program’s best chance to reach Nationals, as Chicago heads into the weekend ranked fifth in the Midwest region.

Last year, six teams from the Midwest qualified from the region, and key wins over regional opponents UW–Whitewater and Elmhurst should bolster the South Siders’ résumé heading into tournament selections, as announced Monday.

Still, two losses to UW–Platteville (ranked third in the region) in the last two weeks could prove costly, and if any lower seeds capture automatic bids in their conference tournaments, the Maroons could be on the bubble for a tournament selection.

“We would like to dictate our fate this weekend, but we do have our hands full,” Walby said. “The girls kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel here; they’ve just got to run towards it.”

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