Panther Win Streak Ends in Five-Set Thriller Versus Wesleyan

(L-R): The program honored seniors Emily Kolodka, Eliana Schaefer, Becca Raffel and Alice Roberts prior to Saturday's match.
(L-R): The program honored seniors Emily Kolodka, Eliana Schaefer, Becca Raffel and Alice Roberts prior to Saturday's match.

Middlebury had its 10-match winning streak snapped in an exciting five-set thriller against Wesleyan (19-25, 11-25, 25-19, 25-19, 16-14) on Saturday in Pepin Gymnasium. The Panthers (12-3, 5-1) return to the court Wednesday when they conclude the home portion of their regular-season schedule with a match against Skidmore at 7:00 p.m., while the Cardinals (15-1, 6-0) travel to Bates on Friday at 8:00 p.m.

With the opening set knotted at 13-13, Middlebury rattled off a 5-1 run capped off by a kill from Sarah Staver for an 18-14 lead. The visitors chipped away at the deficit, cutting it to a pair at 21-19 on a kill by Stasie Litinsky, but the Panthers responded with four-straight points for the 25-19 win. Alice Roberts ended the set for the hosts with a kill down the line following a 14-swing rally.

Leading 8-4 to start the second set, the Panthers tallied the next nine points for a 17-4 advantage. Staver had a pair of kills and a service ace during the run, while Roberts recorded two kills. The Panther lead grew to as many as 16 (23-7) on a block assist from Eliana Schaefer and Staver before grabbing a two sets to none edge. Middlebury posted a .483 hitting percentage in the set (16-2-29), while limiting Wesleyan to a .074 hitting percentage (7-5-27).

The third set saw both teams trade points back and forth with neither side holding more than a two-point lead over the first 28 points. Tied at 14-14, the Cardinals scored seven of the ensuing eight points for a 21-15 advantage on a kill by Grace Rose. Middlebury cut it to four at 22-18 on a kill from Becca Raffel, before a kill from Nicole Hilton ended the set and made the score 2-1 in favor of Middlebury.

The fourth set saw the visitors jump out to a 10-3 lead on a kill by Harper Graves. The Panthers slowly chipped away at the lead, slicing it to just four (16-12) on a Cardinal attack error. Wesleyan scored the next three points and were never challenged again in the set, forcing a decisive fifth set on a kill by Gabby Bennett.

In the final stanza, Wesleyan jumped out to a 6-1 lead, highlighted by three kills from Graves. That lead grew to as many as six (14-8) on a kill from Litinsky. The Panthers fought back, staving off six-straight match points and tying the set on a Cardinal attack error. Wesleyan scored the final two points of the match on a kill from Graves down the middle and a setting error by the Panthers for the final 16-14 win.

Raffel led the Panthers with a season-best 21 kills, while Staver (12), Roberts (11) and Schaefer (11) each posted double-digits kill totals. Emma Walsh handed out a career-high 55 assists to go along with seven digs. Gigi Alper paced the Panthers with 17 digs, while Raffel had 12 and Beth Neal finished with 11. Staver (3 BS, 2 BA), Roberts (1 BS, 4 BA) and Schaefer (3 BA) each had strong matches at the net.

The Cardinals were led by Litinsky with 20 kills on just 37 attempts and three errors, while Graves added 11 kills. Kaira Muraoka-Roberts handed out 39 assists, while Grace Rose had 12 for Wesleyan. Phia Bellizzi ended her afternoon with a match-best 32 digs, while Bennett had one block solo and four block assists for the Cardinals.