National Champions! 2017 Women's Volleyball Season Recap

The Athenas captured their first National Title in program history in 2017. (photo credit: Matthew Fenton)
The Athenas captured their first National Title in program history in 2017. (photo credit: Matthew Fenton)

NATIONAL CHAMPIONS!

FIRST EVER ATHENAS NCAA TEAM TITLE!

3RD CONSECUTIVE SCIAC CHAMPIONSHIP!

It is hard to write much more after the above headlines of this year's recap – that pretty much says it all! The 2017 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Athenas volleyball team climbed to the pinnacle of NCAA women's volleyball by capturing the Division III National Championship. It was an inspired squad that swept Wittenberg University 3-0 (25-18, 25-19, 25-22) on a rainy Saturday evening at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The championship weekend saw CMS defeat regional champions Gustavus Adolphus (3-1) in the quarterfinals and Ithaca (3-1) in the semifinals to advance to the championship match against the tournament's number one seed, Wittenberg.

To get to Grand Rapids the Athenas had to overcome the toughest regional of the country. The Georgetown Regional, hosted by Southwestern University (TX), featured four of the top six teams in the country: No. 1 Colorado College, No. 4 Trinity, No. 5 Southwestern, and No. 6 CMS.  In addition, regional teams Pacific Lutheran and UT Dallas were ranked nationally at some point during the season.

At the regional, the Athenas opened up with a win over UT Dallas (3-1), a team that they defeated in the season's opening weekend at the Pacific Coast Classic in Claremont, and then met the challenge of host Southwestern (3-1) in the semifinals. Waiting for CMS in the Regional Final was familiar foe Colorado College. The Tigers had knocked the Athenas out of the NCAA Tournament in 2013 and 2016 in the regionals and came into the Tournament ranked number one in the country with an undefeated record against Division III opponents. CMS fought back after a first set loss (25-21) to take sets two and three by identical scores of 21-17. A late Colorado College rally tied the fourth set at 24-24, but CMS sided out and then defended its own serve to take the set 26-24 and the match 3-1. The Regional Title returned the Athenas to the National Championship weekend for the first time since 2014.

There were so many other firsts and milestones and special moments during this magical 2017 season.  The Athenas ended the season with a 22-match win streak.  They also won the final 23 sets of the regular season and conference tournament.  CMS won a team record 31 matches.  The team went 15-1 in SCIAC play which also is the best ever in winning the schools' fifth conference championship and third consecutive title.  The Athenas then went on to win its second conference tournament championship paving the way to the NCAA championships.

The season opened with one of the toughest non-conference schedules in CMS history. In the season's first three weeks, the Athenas faced seven future NCAA Tournament teams with matches against SUNY Brockport, Millikin, UT Dallas, Pacific Lutheran, Trinity, Juniata, and Emory during their non-conference schedule.  In addition, conference member Whitter, another team that reached the Tournament, and Division II Lee University were on the schedule. Three of CMS's five losses were against NCAA Tournament teams with a fourth loss against Division II Lee.

The Athenas also enjoyed the sophomore year of the state of the art Roberts Pavilion – the new home of CMS Athletics. The Division I quality arena brought a new level of excellence during the 2017 season.

This year's roster was the most experienced in Athenas' volleyball history. The roster included eight seniors, seven of whom had played in the NCAA national quarterfinals as freshmen and who had qualified for the NCAA West regional in the first three years of their respective careers.  There was one junior along with thirteen sophomore and first-year players. This combination of experience and fresh energy played well together as CMS stayed in the top-ten of the National Rankings all season long.

And it was the seniors who were so much of the story…

Clara Madsen (SR, CMC, Santa Barbara) was one of the team's two setters as part of the 6-2 offense.  Margaux Arntson (SR, CMC, Puyallup, WA) and Shelbi Stein (SR, CMC, Laguna Beach) were the one-two punch on the right side. Mariah Rigg (SR, CMC, Honolulu, HI) and Sarah Bruml (SR, Scripps, San Mateo) teamed up at the middle blocker spot. Crystal Anderson (SR, CMC, Sammamish, WA) was outside and Mikena Werner (SR, Scripps, Irvine) was in the backcourt as the libero.  Jenny Smith (SR, HMC, Redmond, WA) gave CMS additional fire power both as an outside hitter and on the right side.

Madsen graduates as a four-year starter and having set more balls and serving more aces than any player in CMS history. She also was a three-time all-conference player.

Arntson finished her four-year career in the top 5 of kills and as a repeat all-conference performer.

The same can be said of Stein who also earned four letters and was a starter throughout her career for the Athenas.

Werner wrapped up a four year career with the second most digs in CMS history and earning three All-SCIAC selections, two All-West region selections, and two All-American selections.

Rigg was a four-year letter winner and a multi-year starter and finished in the top ten in career blocks. She also had been the SCIAC first year player of the year in 2014.

Bruml, despite suffering season-ending injuries twice in her career, also finished her four-year career as one of the top blocking players in CMS volleyball history.

Anderson was another four-year letter winner and a two-time starter and moved into the top ten in career kills for the Athenas.

Smith was on the roster for two years and contributed greatly to the team's success; at times acting on the level of an assistant coach bringing motivation and calm to her teammates. Her efforts at the Elite Eight in Grand Rapids brought attention to the national broadcast multiple times.

Hannah Grobisen (JR, CMC, Rancho Santa Fe) returned for her third season and could play both middle blocker and right side. 

Phoebe Madsen (SO, CMC, Santa Barbara) was the team's second setter in the 6-2 offense complementing her sister Clara. Sarah Tritschler (SO, CMC, Los Altos) became the first defensive specialist off the bench and had the second most digs behind Werner. 

Amanda Walker (SO, Scripps, Newport Beach) played the right side behind Arntson and Stein and filled in without missing a beat when called upon throughout the season. Isabelle Taylor (SO, CMC, Darien, CT) moved into the other outside hitter starting position mid-way through the season and got only stronger in her play over the final month of the championship run.

Lina Aluzri (SO, CMC, Newport Beach) and Emma Williams (SO, Scripps, Kirkland, WA) were defensive specialists and also were called in for serving in special situations during the year.

Melanie Moore (FR, CMC, San Mateo) and Regan Dinovitz (FR, CMC, Camarillo) came to CMS for their first taste of college volleyball action and were thrown into the mix from the beginning.  They went on to earn starting positions in the middle with Moore earning all-conference honors at the end of the season.

Lauren Widasky (FR, CMC, San Diego) saw action at the outside before injuries slowed her inaugural season. Margot Mafra-Spencer (FR, Scripps, Riverside) is another talented outside hitter who had a starting role during the season during a strong initial tour with CMS volleyball.

Jessica Lee (FR, CMC, Palo Alto) came in as the team's third setter and Lauren Gode (FR, CMC, Loomis) could play either the right side or on the outside. Rounding out the roster of first year players is Megan Dymerski (FR, HMC, Rancho Cucamonga) who came in to play defensive specialist and also to deliver the big serve late in close sets.

CMS opened the 2017 season by co-hosting the Pacific Coast Classic. The opening weekend tournament saw the Athenas square off against SUNY Brockport, the first of many NCAA Tournament teams that CMS would see. It was a 3-0 win for CMS followed by wins over UT Dallas (3-0), who the Athenas would meet again in November in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament, and Wisconsin Eau Claire 3-0.

The next weekend found CMS playing at the Cal Lu Fornia tournament and once again playing another postseason team in Pacific Lutheran. The Athenas came away with its first five-set win (3-2) of the season against the Lutes. There also were 3-set sweeps over Whitworth and UC Santa Cruz. 

Not to be done with its tough non-conference schedule, the Athenas flew cross-country to play two more nationally ranked teams and Division II Lee. A win over nationally ranked Juniata (3-0) highlighted the weekend. What made the trip even more interesting is that on Saturday half the CMS squad had to return to California for the SCIAC opener against Caltech. The split squad started the journey to the conference championship by sweeping the Beavers 3-0.

The Athenas followed with a 3-0 win over La Verne. After its only setback of the SCIAC schedule, CMS started a 22-match win streak – the longest in Athenas volleyball history – with a come from behind 5-set win over Occidental.  This was followed by wins over Whittier (3-0), at Cal Lutheran (3-1), Redlands (3-0), Pomona-Pitzer (3-1), at Redlands (3-0), and Caltech (3-0). 

There was a break in conference play and CMS hosted UC Santa Cruz defeating the Banana Slugs once again by a score of 3-0. Once SCIAC action resumed, the Athenas traveled to La Verne to take on the top-25 ranked Leos. CMS was down 2 sets to 1 when it started its streak of 23 consecutive winning sets. This resulted in a 3-2 victory over La Verne and 3-set sweeps over Chapman, Pomona-Pitzer, Occidental, Whittier, and Cal Lutheran. 

The win over Whittier had clinched the outright SCIAC title for CMS – its third consecutive championship and fifth overall in program history. This also guaranteed the number one seed in the SCIAC Tournament. The semifinal match was against Chapman and resulted in a 3-0 (25-17, 25-18, 25-11) CMS sweep. Two nights later, the Athenas found themselves hosting the conference tournament championship match for the first time and playing a familiar foe in Cal Lutheran, who they had played for the tournament title in each of the last four years. CMS showed its number one seed was no fluke as they swept the Regals 3-0 (25-19, 25-14, 25-16).

The SCIAC Tournament Championship, the second for CMS in the past four years, guaranteed the Athenas an automatic berth into the NCAA championships. As has been the case every year in recent history, the West Regional has been the toughest regional of the eight in the national bracket. 2017 saw four of the top six teams in the nation playing for the regional title.

The Athenas started a pattern that followed them in all three wins at the Georgetown regional by dropping the first set of the match and then coming back strong to sweep the next three sets and win each match 3-1. The opening match against UT Dallas proved to be the most nail-biting as CMS had to go 25-23 both in sets two and four. In the final set, CMS found itself down by scores 18-16, 22-20, and 23-22 before winning the final three points to close out the Comets 25-23.

In the Second Round, CMS faced regional host Southwestern, the Athenas knew they had to shut down both a top five team in the country and also the Pirates' home crowd. After dropping the first set 25-23, CMS rebounded to win the second set 25-20. CMS was in control of the third set 23-17 before Southwestern showed why they were so highly ranked. A five-point run followed moments later by a three-point run found the Athenas down 25-24. After a CMS timeout, the Athenas experience showed the way with a three-point run of their own to close out the set 27-25. That come-from-behind win gave CMS the boost of confidence it needed as set four was all CMS from the start, leading to a 25-14 victory to close out the match.

The next day's Regional Title match against No. 1 Colorado College was a combination of anti-climactic yet energized anxiousness as the seniors leading the way knew what lay ahead. There was a clear focus on the team's part of needing to take care of business. CMS knew how good Colorado was and the coaching staff prepared the team well with the game plan for the match.

Par for the course of the regional, the Athenas fell in the first set, as if that had been the testing ground for getting their feet wet. For then, sets two and three showed clear separation mid-way through the sets as CMS outscored the Tigers 25-17 twice. In the fourth set, the Athenas establish a lead again after the 15 point mark but Colorado fought back to tie the match at 24 showing a resiliency that had contributed to their number one ranking. True to their own style, the Athenas, behind their senior leadership, stayed unphased and confident by responding with a side out and defending their own serve forcing an attacking error wide. As the 26-24 score went up on the scoreboard, the team celebrated its second West Regional championship in the past four years.

With just three days off between the Regional Championship and National Quarterfinals, the Athenas had just enough time to return to Claremont before quickly heading to Michigan to continue the NCAA Tournament. The remaining eight teams were reseeded with the Athenas earning the No. 3 seed and setting up a meeting with No. 6 Gustavus Adolphus in the Quarterfinals.

Once again, CMS was on the short end of the 25-16 score in the first set. After that, the match belonged to the Athenas. CMS stormed back to win the second set 25-17 and then got only stronger with 25-16 and 25-14 wins in sets three and four to close out the quarterfinal 3-1. This win erased the memory of a five-set quarterfinal loss in 2014.

The next night the Athenas found themselves going up against the seventh-seeded Ithaca College Bombers. The Bombers were coming off an upset of second seed Emory University the night before. For the first time in the NCAA championships, CMS came out and prevailed in the opening set 25-23. It was role reversal for Ithaca as the Bombers won the second set by the identical 25-23 score. The third set may have been the pivotal set of the championship weekend as the Athenas found themselves down 13-17 after Ithaca scored the first two points after the media time-out. After off-setting side-outs, CMS went on a six-point run to take the lead and ultimately closed out the set on an 11-3 run. The Athenas took the set 25-21 and held a 2-1 advantage in the semifinals. 

In the fourth set, the Athenas trailed 14-15 at the media timeout, but CMS went on another 11-3 run, including streaks of four and five points, to win going away 25-18. After the final kill, the team celebrated on the court knowing that it was one match away from the coveted National Championship. A National Title had been the goal of the seniors for four years.

Wittenberg University was returning to the finals match for the third time since 2011, having won the National Title in 2011. This experience showed in its road to the championship match as the Tigers had won 15 of 16 sets in their first five tournament matches, including their last 11 sets. CMS had respect for the strength of the Wittenberg squad, particularly after watching their opponent on each of the first two nights of the finals weekend.

This respect did not deter the Athenas from their task at hand. In a close first half of the first set, CMS forced a time-out at 12-10 and then another at 16-12. The Athenas slowly separated themselves from the Tigers over the remainder of the set winning nine of the final 15 points to secure the set 25-18.

The second set was one of runs. The Tigers went up early, but CMS countered and took a 7-5 lead. The lead continued to change hand. One moment the Tigers were up 10-8, but a few minutes later CMS took control with an 18-16 advantage. The late lead at 18-16 forced Wittenberg to take a timeout, but another four-point run by the Athenas allowed them to pull away and stun the crowd with a 25-19 win and a two-set to none lead.

CMS came out from the 10-minute intermission on fire jumping to a 5-1 lead and forcing an early Wittenberg timeout. The Tigers showed their experience and turned the tables to forge ahead 8-6. Another Athenas' run pushed the score back to their advantage at 13-9 and Wittenberg attempted to slow the CMS attack with their final timeout. Following the quick break, the Athenas only pushed harder and increased their lead to 17-11. This mid-set separation proved to be vital as the Tigers fought back, eventually closing the gap to 23-22.  The CMS defense showed why it was as big of a part of the championship season with two big digs forcing an attack error by Wittenberg and giving the Athenas match point at 24-22. A dig at the net and then a right side kill closed out the set 25-22 and brought the National Championship to CMS!

It was ironic that the Athenas defeated the Tigers (Wittenberg) in the National Final after having defeated the Tigers (Colorado) in the Regional Final.

In winning 31 of 36 matches, the Athenas broke their record set just a year earlier in 2016 with an 86.1 percent winning percentage, the highest in team history. Their 15 conference wins also represents a new high water mark for CMS volleyball.

At the end of the SCIAC championship season, CMS was well represented with six All-SCIAC honorees. Right side Margaux Arntson highlighted the All-SCIAC awards with a First Team honor while also being named the Player of the Year in the SCIAC. Setter Clara Madsen moved up to First Team All-SCIAC after two years as Second Team. She was joined by libero Mikena Werner who made her third straight trip to the First Team and middle blocker Melanie Moore who was the only first year player on the First Team. 

Right side hitter Shelbi Stein was named Second Team All-SCIAC achieving all conference recognition for the second consecutive year. Stein also was named the SCIAC Tournament Most Valuable Player. There were still more CMS representation in the conference awards as middle blocker Mariah Rigg was named to the All-Sportsmanship team.  Finally, Kurt Vlasich and his coaching staff was recognized as the Coaching Staff of the Year.

Shortly before the west regional tournament began, the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) released the All-West region team. Mikena Werner returned to the team for her second-straight year while Clara Madsen debuted on the All-Regional team. Closing out the regional honors, right side hitter Margaux Arntson was named the West Regional Player of the Year, another first for CMS. In addition, opposite Shelbi Stein was recognized as an Honorable Mention.

Finally, at the National Championships banquet in Grand Rapids, the All-American teams were released. Arntson became the first ever First Team All-American in CMS volleyball history.  Joining her in All-American status were Werner with her second-straight Second Team nod and Clara Madsen named Honorable Mention.

In addition to this being a remarkable and unforgettable year for the Athenas, it was equally as much for Margaux Arntson.  The right side from Puyallup, WA not only led the team in kills with 350 – the fifth most in team history and the most from a right side who rotated off in the 6-2 CMS offense – but won nearly every award there was to win both locally and nationally. As mentioned, she became CMS' first ever SCIAC Player of the Year and from there went on to receive accolades as the AVCA West Region Player of the Year. Arntson continued to shine in the NCAA Tournament, being named as the Georgetown Regional Player of the Tournament. It only was fitting that she had the final kills in each of the wins at Grand Rapids in the Elite 8 for there she also was awarded the ultimate honor of the National Championship Tournament Most Valuable Player trophy.  She closed out the season with CMS' first ever First Team All-American honor. Quite a season for the Athenas and quite a season for Margaux Arntson.

The team awards were handed out at the annual team banquet in early December.  Libero Mikena Werner was named defensive player of the year while right side Shelbi Stein garnered offensive player of the year honors. Middle blocker Melanie Moore was selected rookie of the year. Four-year letter winner Margaux Arntson closed out her CMS career with the team most valuable player award. 

With eight seniors lost to graduation, there will be a certain amount of unknown coming into 2018. But there are 13 players returning along with a promising recruiting class, so the picture is not as bleak as one might first imagine. Indeed, optimism continue to weigh high for CMS volleyball. In 2018 the Athenas once again open with the Pacific Coast Classic to be followed with an invitation to the Cal Lu Fornia Invitational. There will be more non-conference matches against the Division III elite before the intense conference schedule ensues.

We close by again thanking you, our alumnae, for your continued support throughout the years.   It always is appreciated to hear from you.  In addition, we want to remind you that now you can follow the Athenas on the web by going to http://cmsathletics.org/sports/wvball/. Check the site for schedules, results, live streaming and stats links, as well as news and stories throughout the year.

Looking forward to an exciting and successful 2018 season in search of a repeat, we remain sincerely yours.

- Mike Haas (CMC ’79)