New-Look CMS Volleyball Team Looks Familiar After All

New-Look CMS Volleyball Team Looks Familiar After All

CLAREMONT, Calif. - Every opponent that the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps volleyball team faces this year sees the "CMS" on the jerseys and brings their best, knowing they have a chance to battle the defending national champions.

It's just that the people inside those jerseys are mostly different. 

A year after winning the program's first national title, the Athenas have started out the 2018 season with a 7-1 record, including seven straight wins since a 3-2 loss to No. 6 Johnson & Wales (R.I.) in their opener. CMS has taken down No. 5 Trinity (Texas) on the road in five sets, and came back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat No. 14 Carthage in five sets at home. In fact, four of their seven wins have been in five sets, and two others in four, as the Athenas have been regularly tested in the early going. And they have nearly passed every test. 

It has been an impressive early-season performance for a team that could have every excuse to take a step back off the pedestal they earned a year ago. Eight seniors graduated off of last year's title squad, while two of the top returning hitters, junior captain Isabelle Taylor and sophomore Regan Dinovitz, have yet to play this season due to injury/illness. Head Coach Kurt Vlasich expected some early season bumps in the road, but has been thrilled with the way the new lineup has stepped up to keep the program's success going.

"I couldn't be more happy," Vlasich said. "It is nerve-wracking when you don't know exactly what your lineup is, but it's really exciting to see people step up in key situations. It allows us to feel comfortable with each other and it allows us to make strategic subs and feel just as confident with whoever is out on the floor. It's really an exciting team, and it shows a lot of character."

At the top of the list of people who have stepped up this season is junior Amanda Walker, who was named the MVP of the Trinity Fall Classic last weekend. Down 13-12 in the fifth set to Texas-Tyler, she rattled off three kills in a row to carry the Athenas to a 15-13 win, and also had the winning kill at 14-11 in the fifth set of the win over No. 5 Trinity. A year ago, Walker was a part-time player, seeing action in 16 of 36 matches behind a deep senior class, but this year, she is thriving as the No. 1 option. 

"I've always seen that in her," Vlasich said. "When I saw her as a junior in high school, I felt like her potential was exactly what we saw this weekend. It wouldn't be right to say that I'm surprised; I'm actually very pleased and happy for her, because I know the work that she's put in and I think she deserves it."

The two veterans from last year's title team who have been out there in the early going are junior captains Sarah Tritschler and Phoebe Madsen, who have seen their roles change as well. Tritschler has moved to the full-time libero role after seeing action as a back-row specialist last year, essentially doubling her time on the floor. Madsen, meanwhile, split time at setter last year with her graduated sister Clara, and this year has been a full-time setter in some matches and has split time at setter and outside hitter in others to help the Athenas overcome their injuries.  A year ago, Madsen had four kills all season, but this year she already has 48. 

"Those two have been impressive, but I think the response to their leadership is also something that's really valuable," said Vlasich. "And let's not forget about Izzy Taylor, she's on the bench hurt right now, but she is getting everyone involved and I have to give her a lot credit for getting those subs ready and pumping them up when they get a chance to go in. It's just seamless when you have somebody that's standing next to me on the bench that's keeping everyone engaged, and then someone goes in and they have leaders like Phoebe and Sarah to kind of continue that dialogue."

Tritschler has felt that the team has learned a lot about itself in the first two weekends, as it has battled through adversity against tough competition.

"The biggest thing that we've learned so far is that we're super resilient as a team," said Tritschler. "We've come back from two-set losses and come back to win in five, which is really hard in volleyball because it's such a mental game. We just need to figure out to work together a bit more, but that will come with time."

That competition continues this weekend, as the Athenas host the East-West Challenge on Friday and Saturday at Roberts Pavilion. CMS is currently ranked No. 3 and faces No. 6 Emory in its first match of the weekend on Friday night at 7 p.m. Also on the docket on Saturday are No. 28 Texas-Dallas at 10 a.m. and No. 12 Washington University at 4:45 p.m.

Tritschler is looking forward to what could very well be another tough weekend of four-set and five-set matches. "It's really exciting, it's kind of intense because we don't usually play this many top-10 and top-15 teams," she said. "It's good to have a challenge early in the season so we can experience hard challenges, and being down and losses, but we're just getting better as a team because of it."   

The thought of this team getting even better means that opponents seeing those CMS jerseys in the future can expect just as tough a battle as ever, no matter which players are wearing them.