2017 NCAA DIII National Champions; 6 SCIAC Championships; 3 SCIAC Tournament Championships

Sister Act Gone Solo: Phoebe Madsen Helps Keep CMS Volleyball Among Nation's Elite

Sister Act Gone Solo: Phoebe Madsen Helps Keep CMS Volleyball Among Nation's Elite

CLAREMONT, Calif. -- A lot of college volleyball programs utilize a two-setter system (known as a 6-2), but last year's national championship team from Claremont-Mudd-Scripps had a bit of a different twist on it. Sisters Clara Madsen and Phoebe Madsen rotated equally, co-quarterbacking the CMS offense to a national title, while keeping the setter duties in the family. 

The Madsen sisters, or setsters if you will, are now a one-person act, as Clara Madsen graduated last year, adding a national championship ring to the traditional cap and gown attire. She also took seven of her classmates with her, as the Athenas entered the 2018 season with an almost entirely new-look line-up in pursuit of defending their title. 

As one of the holdovers from last year's national title team, and a junior on a squad with no seniors on it, Phoebe Madsen entered this fall in a much different situation than her first two seasons. Instead of an important supplemental role on a veteran team, she was now thrust into a leadership position on a young roster. And not just any leadership position - it would be leading a team that would have a target on its back all season as the defending national champions. Opponents wouldn't care who was wearing the CMS uniforms, only that they had a chance to beat the team that won it all while wearing them a year ago. 

"It's definitely big shoes to fill," Madsen said. "I knew coming in with Clara being gone and with me being kind of the senior setter, I'd have to step into a new role and take on more of a leadership position. All of the coaches have made it really easy helping me with that transition into being a little bit more of a leader. It's kind of funny because I feel like I'm now seeing the things that Clara used to always see and help me out with when I was younger."

So far, the solo act has been just as strong as the Madsen duo was the last two years, as the Athenas enter tomorrow night's big rivalry home matchup with Pomona-Pitzer at 16-2 overall (7-0 in SCIAC) and No. 3 in the nation. After falling 3-2 to Johnson & Wales in its opening match, CMS has won 16 of its last 17, with seven of those wins coming in the full five sets. 

Madsen, though, has taken on more than just new leadership responsibility. The Athenas have been somewhat injury-plagued this season, right from the start of practice, and have been without several projected starters in the early part of the year. As a result, Madsen has sometimes been a full-time setter, and sometimes moved to a hitter position when sophomore Jessica Lee has come in to handle the setting role. Unlike last year, when splitting the setting duties meant heading to the sidelines when the rotation moved her to the front row, Madsen is now on the court full time, and she's doing a little bit of everything. 

This year, Madsen has tallied 544 assists (7.35 per set) through 18 matches, already more than the 526 she had last year in 33 matches while splitting the duties. However, this year, she has added 107 kills to her resume (after only four all of last season). In addition, she has contributed a team-high 40 aces, 224 digs (ranking second on the team) and 32 blocks (after zero last year, due to never playing on the front row). 

"She's a really versatile player for us; we've known that since we recruited her in high school," said head coach Kurt Vlasich. "She's not just a fabulous setter, she's a great hitter, but what's really showing this year is her flexibility to do everything, whether its dig 20 balls in a match, which she's done a couple times (22 vs. Texas-Dallas, 21 vs. Brandeis), hit for us, or go into a 5-1 and be just a setter."

Statistically, Madsen's 32 blocks (one solo) might not pop off the stat sheet with just under .5 blocks per set, but Vlasich feels that her contributions in that area have also been big to the team's success. 

"I think one of the most important things that she's really worked hard on and kind of goes unnoticed is her blocking. I think over the last few weeks we've really improved our blocking and touching balls at the net. That allows us to look at the situation and use Phoebe in pretty much any manner we want. It's also been great with that flexibility that any player we put around her can kind of adapt to that, so it's kind of contagious; she's helping everyone else be adaptable too. We've had some adverse situations this year, and I don't think we would have gotten through them the way we have without her."

Her teammates have also been impressed with the way that she has handled the extra responsibility this season. 

"Phoebe has been super important this year, especially stepping up and being a six-rotation player instead of just a three-rotation player," said junior libero and fellow captain Sarah Tritschler. "She was just a setter last year and she did an amazing job, but we realized we had this hole on the right side position and she's filled it perfectly. It's so awesome seeing her transition so seamlessly from being a setter to a hitter and then back to setter if we need to. She's just been super versatile and really helpful." 

Although this year's team has moved forward from the national title of a year ago, becoming focused on new challenges, Madsen still sometimes finds herself looking back on what the team accomplished last fall.

"At times it feels like it never happened because there was so much effort that led up to that one game, and then all of a sudden we won and it was over," she said. "But looking at old pictures and thinking back on it when Margaux (Arnston) had the final kill and all the confetti came down and everyone ran on the court and we got the trophy - that is something you'll never forget. It's just so hard to put into words, since it was just so fun."

That match (a 3-0 win over Wittenberg) was also the last one for the Madsen sisters as teammates together, making the moment even more special to Phoebe. 

"It was really, really great to be able to win it with my sister," she said. "In high school we played two years together, and we made it to the CIF finals, but we lost. So we had always wanted to have a big win together, and, I mean, the national championship is as big it can get. It was just so fun to be able to do it with her, she's my best friend as well as my sister."

The challenge now is to try to win another one without her, and while it looked on paper coming into this season like that challenge might be daunting after graduating an eight-member senior class, the Athenas are certainly looking like a contender yet again. Their 16 wins have included a road victory over No. 9 Trinity (Texas), a home win over No. 12 Emory and a neutral win over No. 20 Texas-Tyler, while their two losses have been in five sets to No. 4 Johnson & Wales, and in four to No. 11 Washington University.

There have been a lot of close matches; in fact the Athenas have won seven five-setters in a row since their opening day loss, and have also had tight four-set battles with Emory and Cal Lutheran as well. 

"This year's been so much fun," Madsen said. "We've had a ton of injuries, but honestly that hasn't made any difference. It's really, really fun to constantly be playing with new people and to be able to switch out the lineup so easily. We've had so many intense fifth-game sets, 15-13, 16-14, and those games honestly you would think they're going be a little more stressful and a little more nerve-wracking, but we've been in that situation so many times that now when it's 13-13 in the fifth, we're all so happy to be there and it's so fun. That's kind of been the epitome of this year."

Meanwhile, the epitome of the Madsen family seems to be success -- no matter how many there are.