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Fans Pack Rockwell to See Volleyball Make Sweet 16

By Caroline Huang 
and Travis Johnson

For three nights this weekend, Rockwell Cage felt like a Division I basketball venue, packed with screeching face-painted fans living and dying with every point scored by the Women’s Volleyball team on their run to the Sweet 16 of NCAA Division III volleyball.

Starting Thursday night with a 3-0 victory over Bridgewater State and continuing Friday with a 3-1 win over Amherst and Saturday with a 2-3 barn-burner loss to NEWMAC rival Coast Guard, MIT students packed the gym with clothes and signs matching the team’s uniform color for that night. They jumped to their feet and screamed with every point, out-chanted opposing crowds even when the Engineers were behind, and even managed a complete “Beaver call.”

Four men paraded in with T, E, C, and H emblazoned across their bare chests, and a group of women wore volleyball shirts, sports bras, and full body paint. Other women sported makeshift hats of deconstructed volleyballs.

A perfect storm of events set up the weekend. The Engineers happened to be hosting the opening rounds this year, they got the only at-large bid in the New England region, students had a three-day weekend that allowed them to spend more times out of their rooms, and the team played as well as they had all season.

Making it to the third round of the NCAA is team’s best finish since 1984, and both fans and team members were disappointed that the run ended but extremely proud of what the team accomplished.

Quick Opening Round Win

The Engineers opened the NCAA New England regional tournament with a three-game sweep of Bridgewater State College. They enjoyed a welcome sense of d j vu — Tech also won its first game of the 2005 regionals against the Bears in a three game sweep.

In addition, MIT beat Bridgewater earlier this year in a non-conference match. That match featured powerful hitting by Barden E. Cleeland ’10, but she was unavailable for the NCAAs due to a leg injury.

Instead, the Engineers received dominating performances by team Frances M. Rogoz ’07, Alexandra T. May ’10, Amanda J. Morris ’08, and Carrie C. Buchanan ’08. Rogoz finished with 16 kills and a 0.333 hitting percentage, the highest on the team.

Play began with a back-and-forth power struggle in the first game as MIT opened up a 3-1 lead, only to see the Bears counter with four points of their own. With the score tied at nine, the Engineers took the lead for good, winning the game 30-26 on what would become the theme of the match: Bridgewater’s hitting mistakes.

The drama only escalated in the second game, as Tech appeared to run away with a 26-16 lead. At this point, fans celebrated by taunting Bridgewater with cries of, “she’s a freshman,” after stellar kills by May and Katherine C. Rowe ’10, followed by, “she’s our captain” after a Briana J. Stephenson ’07 kill.

However, the Bears went on a 9-1 run to close to 27-25 due to a flurry of MIT hitting errors. Tech wasted a 29-26 advantage on a Bears kill, another hitting mistake, and a miscommunication that made the score 29-29.

After a tense exchange, May gave MIT a 30-29 lead off a strong kill, but a serve into the net knotted the score at 30. Finally, the Engineers capitalized on a Rogoz kill to take a two-game lead, winning the game 32-30.

The final game allowed fans’ elevated heart rates to slow down, as MIT strolled to an easy third-game win. Fans chanted “Hey hey hey, goodbye,” as a final hitting error doomed the Bears, giving MIT a 30-21 victory.

Four Game Win in Semis

Amherst proved a worthy opponent in a four-game semifinal match, but MIT eventually prevailed 30-27, 30-22, 26-30, 30-27.

The Lord Jeffs, particularly middle hitter Kristin Quinn, made MIT earn every point with excellent blocking and a consistent sideout attack.

MIT fell behind early in the first game 9-14, but quickly came back on a streak of serves by Lindsay E. Hunting ’08 that Amherst had trouble handling and put the Engineers up 15-14.

Tech held onto a tenuous one point lead until four point run made it 25-20 and forced Amherst coach Sue Everden to call timeout. Whatever she told her team worked, as they went on a four point run of their own, including two tips by Quinn, to bring the score to 25-24.

MIT Coach Paul Dill called a timeout of his own, which didn’t elicit an immediate MIT run but did stop Amhert’s progress.

In a critical play with the score at 28-26, Morris ducked at the last second to avoid Amherst block that sailed over the net and was heading out of bounds. MIT finished the game 30-27 on a Rogoz kill.

The second game was once again close through the early stages until MIT took a slim five point advantage at 21-16 after three consequetive May kills. The Engineers never looked back and cruised to a 30-22 win.

With MIT looking for the sweep in Game Three, the teams played about as close as you can play for the first twenty points. Neither team got a three point lead until Amherst scored to make it 22-25.

Dill called a timeout at that point, but couldn’t stop the Jeffs’ momentum. The game ended on a sequence of great saves by Amherst that resulted in their 30th point.

Looking to avoid a risky fifth game, Tech turned up their intensity for the fourth game and took an early 5-2 lead on two kills and one ace by Rowe.

Undaunted, Amherst cranked their blocked and defense up a notch and took a 7-13 lead. During this stretch, the Engineers were trying too many tips and Amherst caught on and had an easy time defending.

Down 10-17 and starring at a possible fifth game, May got a big kill off a Morris dig that keyed a 4-1 run and prompted an Amherst time-out.

Stephenson had a good sequence coming out of the time-out, snagging a kill to make it 15-19 and desperately flailing her arm to keep a play alive, which allowed Rogoz to finish the point and make it 17-19.

Once again Amherst responded and rattled off three points to make it 17-22. After a Dill timeout, three Jeffs mistakes and powerful Hunting serves combined to give MIT a perfectly timed 8-1 run that put them ahead 25-23.

May finished the game and match with a kill from the left side that went untouched into the ground and drew her teammates into a celebratory pile and the crowd into a cheering frenzy.

Marathon Loss to Coast Guard

The Engineers (33-6) lost the first two games to NEWMAC rival Coast Guard (26-2), rallied to win a tight third game and a blowout fourth, but finally lost 12-15 in the deciding fifth game of the NCAA regional final match.

The first game starting with two quick mistakes by the Bears star hitter Corinne McCormack and setter Christine Rostowfske gave MIT a two point lead that they kept through the early portion of the first game.

May got a kill from the back line that put MIT ahead 9-6 and drew a chant of “she’s a freshman” from the crowd. The Bears then scored four straight points on excellent serving by Kimberly Jung, including a floating serve than landed in for an ace, to take their first lead of the match at 9-10.

The Engineers answered with a 7-1 run of their own, powered by a Rogoz kill from the left side, a Buchanan ace, and unforced errors by McCormack and Rostowfske.

A Coast Guard time-out temporarily stopped MIT’s momentum with a play that perfectly set up McCormack for the kill from mid court. But Rogoz responded immediately with a kill of her own and launched another MIT run that pushed the lead to 21-14.

In the run, and throughout the match, much of MIT’s success was in its consistency. Buchanan and the rest of the defense dig the ball for setter Morris who gets it to May, Rogoz or Rowe. As a group, MIT seemed to make fewer mistakes than their opponents, which kept the pressure on the Bears.

The flip side of that is that when Coast Guard could avoid mistakes, they were unstoppable. And they were on for the rest of game one, reeling off 10 of 11 points to take a 22-24 lead over the Engineers using a perfect combinations of tips when the MIT blockers were aggressive and full swings when the defenders snuck up to counter the tip.

The Engineers tightened up their play to bring it to a 26-26 tie, but a Jung tip ended the game 28-30.

The first half of Game Two was even closer than Game One, and Coast Guard made the first real headway with a 6-1 run that made the score 21-26. A Dill time-out wasn’t enough to stop the Bears’ momentum, and Coast Guard rolled to a 24-30 win.

The third game showed a reversal from the first two. Though close, it was Coast Guard nursing a small lead throughout. Behind 15-21, MIT came up with a great sequence at just the right time. Three kills by May, one of which came off a particularly good set by Morris, helped MIT pull within two at 19-21.

After a few Coast Guard points, MIT went on another five point run that made the score 26-26. On the next crucial play, Buchanan fell on her tailbone and was writhing in pain. Coast Guard scored, but the referees ruled that play was dead because of Buchanan’s injury and left the score at 26-26.

Buchanan, after talking to the trainer and Coach Dill, stayed on the court for the next play. Dill recalled afterwards that, “the trainer was about to take her off and say, ‘you’re done,’ and she’s like, ‘no, I’m playing, I’m playing, I’m playing,’ and tears streaming down her eyes she still sucked it up and she played. She played her guts out.”

With the crowd chanting “Carrie, Carrie, Carrie,” and Coach Guard’s coach Patty Giannattosio dismayed that the point was disallowed, MIT won the game 32-30 on three straight May kills.

The fourth game was the only game throughly controlled by either team, and it was the Engineers in the drivers seat. Coast Guard seemed unfocused and MIT was more intense and precise than they’ve been all season. They only made 3 hitting errors in the match, and ended up with a huge .395 hitting percentage and a 30-18 win.

Conventional wisdom says the team that forces the fifth game has the momentum and will usually win. On the other hand, MIT was 0-5 in fifth games this season, including a loss to Coast Guard earlier this season, so the fifth game was a tossup.

Dill downplays any talk of a fifth game curse. He said, “This team they just beat us. They were just a little bit better than we were. If the score had gone to thirty, I think we maybe would have pulled it out.”

On fifth games this season, Rogoz said, “it’s really hard to put your finger on it. I think it may be in our heads a little bit. It’s just something we’re going to have to overcome. We’ve overcome it in the past.”

In such a short game (first to 15 instead of 30), a small string of points can be decisive, and Coast Guard got such a string after the teams sparred to a 6-6 tie.

A five point run put the game at 6-11, and despite a valiant four point run that brought it back to 10-11, the Coast Guard attack was too much and gave the Bears a 12-15 win and spot in the NCAA national tournament.

Coach Dill says he told the team afterwards, “It’s just a score. Look what you’ve done with this program. You took a giant step today.”

Looking ahead to next year, the Engineers will be back in a big way. They already know that they will add Cleeland, who led the team in kills and blocks before a leg injury sidelined her for the season, and they will lose only two seniors.