Middlebury Defeats Tufts in Thrilling NESCAC Championship

The Panthers celebrate after winning the NESCAC Championship. (photo courtesy of Tufts Sports Information)
The Panthers celebrate after winning the NESCAC Championship. (photo courtesy of Tufts Sports Information)

Second-seeded Middlebury claimed its fifth NESCAC Championship in the program's history with a five-set victory (14-25, 25-19, 25-19, 24-26, 15-11) over top-seeded Tufts (24-3) on Sunday in Cousens Gymnasium. Middlebury (18-8) earns the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and will find out its opponent when the field is announced Monday afternoon. The Jumbos, who received votes in the latest AVCA national poll, are likely to receive an at-large bid. The Panthers also won the league's title in 1997, 1998, 2010 and 2012.

In the opening set with the score knotted at 4-4, the Jumbos put together a 5-1 run, including a pair of kills from Brigid Bell, for a 9-5 advantage. The hosts maintained between a three and five-point advantage over the next few points, until the Panthers cut the deficit to two (13-11) on a block by Melanie English and Alice Roberts. The Jumbos responded with a 7-2 run, highlighted by two more kills from Bell, for a 20-13 edge. Tufts kept that momentum rolling, scoring five of the final six points, finishing the set on a kill by Elizabeth Ahrens, for the 25-14 victory.

The second set saw the Panther race out to a 7-3 lead. Tufts answered with a 5-1 run of its own, knotting the set at 8-8 via a kill by Katie Kim. Middlebury slowly pulled away, gaining a five-point lead at 18-13 on a block by Roberts and Sarah Staver. Tufts chipped into the Panther advantage, slicing it to one (20-19) on a service ace by Kelly Klimo. Middlebury scored the final five points of the set, all on Jumbo hitting errors, to tie the match at a set apiece.

In the third set, the Jumbos grabbed a 7-3 edge on a kill by McKenzie Humann. The Panthers fought back, tying the set at 11-11 on a Jumbo hitting error. Deadlocked at 14-14 later in the set, Middlebury rattled off a 7-2 spurt, highlighted by two kills from Becca Raffel, for a 21-16 advantage. Tufts cut the deficit to three (22-19) on a kill by Ahrens, but the Panthers grabbed a 2-1 edge on a kill by Chellsa Ferdinand and back-to-back kills by English.

Tufts jumped out to a 9-4 advantage in the fourth set, but Middlebury came back to cut the deficit to one (13-12) via a hitting error. The Jumbos edged away from the Panthers, taking a 24-19 lead. Middlebury didn't go away, rattling off five-straight points and tied the set at 24-24. Raffel had a pair of kills for Middlebury during the run. A Panther attack error along with a bad set gave the Jumbos the 26-24 victory and forced a decisive fifth set.

In the final set, the hosts held leads of 5-2 and 10-6. Down by four, Middlebury seven-straight points for a 13-10 advantage. Two kills from Isabel Sessions, a kill from Eliana Schaefer and four Tufts attack errors comprised the spurt. After a Middlebury attack error cut the Panther lead to a pair, a Jumbo attack error and a block by Schaefer and English secured the championship point.

Raffel led the Panther attack with 15 kills to go along with a career-high 26 digs for a double-double, while Sessions added 12 kills. Hannah Blackburn handed out 23 assists and produced a career-best 29 digs, while Gigi Alper and Emily Kolodka had 26 and 16 digs, respectively. English led the Panthers at the net with a block solo and five block assists, while Schaefer, Roberts and Staver each had three block assists.

Tufts was led by Bell with 15 kills to go along with 17 digs, while Humann had tacked on 10 kills to go with four block solos and two block assists. Angela Yu dished out 24 assists for the Jumbos, while Rachel Furash had 17. Klimo dug up a match-best 31 digs for Tufts, while Alexandra Garrett added 18.