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MIT women’s volleyball vs. U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Nov. 2.
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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is widely accepted as a scholastic superpower, producing some of the world’s greatest mathematicians and scientists. Unsurprisingly, its athletic program — though distinguished in its own right — has consistently been an afterthought in a discussion of MIT’s virtues.

As of late, however, MIT can add “perennial volleyball force” to both its academic and athletic résumés. Both the men’s and women’s programs have shared success in the classroom and on the court, and nowhere was it more evident than in Rockwell Cage during the last days of the women’s volleyball season … except perhaps during its 30-match win streak and five tournament titles.

NCAA tournament

For the second year in a row, Rockwell Cage shook with the crowd’s thunderous support en route to MIT’s appearance in the Sweet 16 of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III Women’s Volleyball Tournament. Top-seeded Tech fell to No. 3 Amherst College in four games — 30-25, 30-16, 24-30, 30-23 — in the final of the New England Regional on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2007.

Beginning with a straightforward 3-0 win against overmatched Maine Maritime Academy on Thursday and concluding with a tight 3-1 loss to Amherst College on Saturday, the volleyball team had its fans riveted throughout its three matches. MIT concluded its remarkable season with a 36-3 mark, the second-best season in team history. (Only the 1983 team posted a better record, finishing 41-2.)

Just like last year, Tech received hearty support from the fans, especially the loyal bunch who painted their bodies to spell out “B-E-A-V-E-R,” “T-E-C-H,” and “G-O M-I-T V-B.” The spandex-clad and paint-decorated fans led the audience in cheers through megaphones during every timeout.

Tech cruised to a straight-set victory over eighth-seeded Maine Maritime Academy by a score of 30-13, 30-6, 30-14. In a match that was never close, the Engineers decimated the Mariners with a combination of service aces and overpowering hitting (four players had hitting percentages higher than .400).

In a grudge match versus Wellesley College — which beat MIT in the NEWMAC Volleyball Championship Finals, costing Tech an automatic bid to the NCAA regionals — the Engineers prevailed in a turbulent five-game affair 34-32, 30-25, 25-30, 23-30, 15-13. After squeaking out the first game on a well-placed Amanda J. Morris ’08 hit, Tech relied on the serving of Lindsay E. Hunting ’09 to win the second game.

Wellesley established control of the third game at the start and never relinquished the lead, cutting the deficit to 2-1. The fourth game featured a close start and several fruitless MIT attempts to overtake the Blue: four times the Engineers drew within two points, and four times Wellesley escaped with the lead intact. When the Blue went on a well-timed scoring run to grab 10 of the last 15 points, it looked like the Engineers’ momentum had slipped away for good.

Luckily, Tech picked an opportune time to jump ahead early, recording a 4-0 lead. Unluckily, a burst of sloppy play and timely Wellesley strikes brought the score to a 12-12 deadlock, placing both teams three points away from the regional final.

Barden E. Cleeland ’10 and Rose Zhong ’08 racked up the next two points for the Engineers, putting them a point away from victory. After a Wellesley kill brought the score to 14-13, Zhong sealed the deal with a kill.

The regional final against third-seeded Amherst College marked the end of MIT’s run, as Tech narrowly missed a trip to the Elite Eight by falling 30-25, 30-16, 24-30, 30-23. The story of the match was initially close games, blown open by large scoring runs and marked by failed attempts at catching the leading team.

It was a bittersweet loss for the Engineers: a season-ending loss to a team they had beaten in the second round of the NCAA regionals last year, tempered with the second-best record in program history.

Individual awards

Beyond their NCAA success, the Engineers also earned numerous individual accolades. A smattering of these is listed below.

Setter Morris led the way, leading the NEWMAC with 1,385 assists and establishing her as one of the most prolific setters in Institute history with 3,597 assists, good for third all-time at MIT. Her awards list goes on forever: NEWMAC Athlete of the Year, New England Women’s Volleyball Association Player of the Year award, NEWVA All-New England First Team for the second consecutive year, the American Volleyball Coaches Association New England Player of the Year award, and AVCA New England All-Region honors, among others. And that’s before the All-American awards — Morris earned spots on the AVCA All-America Third Team and CoSIDA/ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America First Team.

Libero Buchanan also racked up individual decorations, meriting a mention as a CoSIDA/ESPN the Magazine Academic All-America Second Team member for her defensive efforts. Her season featured a 51-dig performance against Williams College in the semifinals of the MIT Women’s Volleyball Invitational, good for the Institute record for digs in a match and the Tournament MVP award. She earned AVCA New England All-Region honors for the second season in a row and added a NEWVA All-New England Second Team mention to her awards pile.

Middle hitter Rowe earned recognition from AVCA and NEWVA as well, as she was named to the NEWVA All-New England Second Team and the AVCA New England All-Region Team.

Zhong finished her senior year — highlighted by her MIT-record 13 aces in a Sept. 18 match versus Worcester Polytechnic Institute — with spots on NEWMAC Academic All-Conference Team and the CoSIDA/ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District Third Team.

Coach Paul Dill added to the award total with two coaching awards, winning the AVCA Division III New England Coach of the Year and the NEWVA Coach of the Year for the second year in a row.

2008 outlook

Next season will mark a transition of sorts, as Buchanan, Morris, and Zhong formed the backbone of this year’s team. Tech will miss Buchanan’s all-out defensive play and spectacular digs, as well as Morris’ stellar sets and Zhong’s strong hitting.

“The three seniors … were instrumental in helping take the program to the next level over the past four seasons and will be very hard to replace. However, the program is designed to keep the expectations the same, no matter what,” Dill said. “The solid core of returning players along with a hopefully strong recruiting class will be sure to step up so we can pick up where we left off this season.”

The expectations may remain “the same,” but there may be more descriptive words for them: ambitious, lofty, and entirely possible. After all, the 2007 team rebounded quite nicely after losing four players to graduation, injury, and the like.

As Coach Dill said: “This is one of the greatest women’s teams I have ever coached. The team culture and ability to pursue excellence at such a high level is unparalleled in my time at MIT.”