CEDAR RAPIDS — When the NCAA Division III women’s volleyball tournament arrived in Cedar Rapids, Emory (Ga.) University Coach Jenny McDowell stated that Johns Hopkins (Md.) University might have the biggest target on its back.
Sure, Emory was the defending national champion, but Johns Hopkins was the lone unbeaten in the eight-team quarterfinal field.
Both schools collided in the national championship match Saturday night at the U.S. Cellular Center, and the Blue Jays made McDowell look prophetic.
“We really support each other,” Johns Hopkins junior outside hitter Simone Bliss said after No. 2-seed Johns Hopkins swept No. 1 Emory, 25-23, 25-22, 25-18, and won its first national title. “We have each other’s backs. That closeness and that trust is the reason that we have been able to do what we have done. We have just taken it one day at a time, one set a time and given it our best every practice and every game. We are extremely grateful that that happened to culminate into where we are today.”
A year after losing eight matches, Johns Hopkins (35-0) became the first D-III women’s volleyball team in 20 years to finish with an unbeaten record. Central (Iowa) College was the last to do it by finishing 41-0 in 1999 and winning the second of its three national titles in a row.
With a roster of just 10 players, the Blue Jays dropped one set total in the three matches (national quarterfinal, semifinal, final) played in Cedar Rapids and just eight all season. Saturday night, Johns Hopkins had just nine players available due to a semifinal injury to junior libero Nicole Hada.
No matter. Bliss led all players with 21 kills and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Teammates Natalie Aston and Louisa Kishton were named to the All-Tournament team.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
“In some ways, it is a disadvantage to have only 10 (players),” Bliss said. “Because when someone goes out, it is a big deal. But because of that, we have learned to adjust and really become more all-around players.”
All were thrilled by the performance of Cedar Rapids as a host city and the U.S. Cellular Center as a venue, all under the direction of the American Rivers Conference.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Johns Hopkins Coach Matt Troy said as his players nodded in agreement. “Not the easiest place to get to. But as far as being here, the people have just been so kind and so welcoming. We have enjoyed some pretty good restaurants, having fun out at few times. Just the atmosphere in general. Playing in a big arena, there are not very many opportunities to do that in the D-3 world. To have that environment, I think it is a memory we will all remember and cherish.”
Emory (34-3) scratched and clawed to get into the final. The Eagles were pushed to five sets in both the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds.
Tara Martin led Emory with 10 kills and was named to the All-Tournament team along with teammate Leah Saunders.
“You don’t see too many teams like them,” McDowell said of Johns Hopkins. “No one else has figured out how to beat them, either.”