CLAREMONT, Calif. - Much like a year ago, the 2019 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps volleyball team stands one week from the start of the season unsure of exactly what its opening day lineup might look like.
But the similarities end there.
The 2017 team won the program's first-ever national championship and graduated eight seniors, leaving none on the 2018 squad. Preseason practice last year also saw several injuries and illnesses leave the roster even more shorthanded, and Head Coach Kurt Vlasich prepared for the annual season-opening Pacific Coast Classic wondering who would be left healthy to take the Roberts Pavilion floor.
This year, though, he has a much different issue. The 2018 team finished 27-4 and won the SCIAC title despite the adversity, didn't graduate anyone, and added six talented newcomers. So CMS now has 21 players all battling it out for court time, a far cry from the nine or ten who were healthy enough to go on opening weekend last year. It's a situation that has everyone on the team excited for the potential that 2019 might bring.
"So far preseason has been great," said senior Phoebe Madsen, who helped last year's team to a lofty final record by playing multiple positions on her way to first-team All-America honors. "It's really fun to have all the returners back, plus the freshmen, so it's the same exact team, plus a bunch. And the freshmen are doing a really great job getting integrated -- you can't tell which ones are freshmen now, it's been very seamless."
Senior defensive specialist Lina Aluzri was one of several Athenas who were called on to step up last year in the wake of the roster attrition, and she had a big role in helping CMS to the league title, playing in 29 matches (after only seven in her first two years) and ending the year with 210 digs. She also has been impressed with the depth that this year's team has.
"It's honestly been great because we have so many bodies on the court," Aluzri said. "Everyone is playing at such a high level that we know we have such a deep roster and such a deep bench. I think there's going to be a lot of options that we can choose from and a lot of things we can do, and it's good to have that diversity."
The Athenas' four seniors will help provide the backbone for the 2019 team. Madsen vacillated between the setter and outside hitter positions last year, and still finished with 947 assists, which ranks seventh on the program's single-season list. She split time at setter her first two seasons in a 6-2 system (with her older sister Clara), but became a six-rotation player last year and added 190 kills and 55 blocks to her stat line a year ago (after tallying nine kills and no blocks as a back-row player her first two seasons).
Madsen was a first-team AVCA All-America selection and was joined on the All-America list by senior right side hitter Amanda Walker (third team). Walker improved from 79 kills as a sophomore to 407 as a junior, which ranks as the third-highest total in program history. Walker's emergence was a huge factor in keeping the Athenas among the nation's elite, replacing the graduation of the top three outside hitters from the national title team (Margaux Arntson, Crystal Anderson, Shelbi Stein).
Senior Sarah Tritschler moved into the libero role last year and finished with 612 digs, which also ranks third on the CMS single-season list. Tritschler, an AVCA All-West Region selection, had a 40-dig performance in a four-set win over Cal Lutheran a year ago, and teamed with Aluzri to give the Athenas a strong defensive back row. Junior Megan Dymerski and sophomore Makenna Fall, who was lost for the season with an injury early in the 2018 campaign, also return to give CMS plenty of defensive experience.
CMS will also be strong in the middle, where junior Melanie Moore and Regan Dinovitz return after both started as first-years on the national championship team of 2017. Dinovitz was one of the many players who were inactive for much of last season, but returned down the stretch to help CMS to the conference title. Moore, meanwhile, earned AVCA All-Region honors, hitting .326 offensively and moved into the top 10 in CMS history with 103 blocks on the year defensively.
At the hitter positions, junior Lucila Grinspan and sophomore Jackie Jones emerged as the starters last season and will once again be expected to get a large share of the offensive swings this fall. Sophomore Melanie Williams came into the program with great promise before losing almost all of her first year to injury, but she returns healthy to add another weapon to the CMS arsenal.
The junior class is also full of players who will be looking to increase their roles this season, with Lauren Gode and Margot Mafra Spencer back at the outside hitter spots, and Linden Conrad returning in the middle. Junior Jessica Lee also filled in at setter when Madsen rotated to a hitting position and will once again have an important role in giving CMS that option.
The newcomers who Madsen complimented for their seamless transition in preseason include outside hitters Izzy Sakoda, Summer Ellis and Sonia Blliss, middle hitter Kara Cato, setter Spencer Hagenbuch, and defensive specialist Emma Thompson, all of whom will look to earn their way into a deep CMS rotation.
The adversity last year in many ways helped to mature the young Athenas and prepare them for the new campaign. They fought through the challenges to win 27 matches, including 10 in five sets and a four-setter over eventual national champion Emory, and captured the conference crown. Their hopes of a repeat national title were dashed, though, with a four-set defeat to Wisconsin Eau Claire in the tournament's second round.
"We definitely learned a lot from last year," said Madsen. "Not only throughout the season how to battle through those injuries and get around those things, but we also were able to see what mistakes we made. So a lot of the dialogue this preseason is just figuring out how to make the necessary changes that we weren't able to make last year."
A total of 10 of the 21 players on the roster have national championship rings from two years ago, and that group would love to add a matching ring for their opposite hand, especially the seniors who are in their final collegiate campaign. Madsen has been through the fall season marathon a few times, and
"It would be really great, I would love to have two rings," she said. "That's always the ultimate goal, but we've got to work day by day, game by game to get there."
The journey starts next weekend at the Pacific Coast Classic, with matches on Friday against Carroll (11 a.m.) and Dallas (5:15 p.m.) and Saturday against Augsburg (11:30 a.m.) and St. Olaf (3;45 p.m.). To view the complete schedule click here.
To view a video preview of the 2019 season, click the play button above or visit our YouTube page