The Dons returned to San Francisco, Calif. this Sunday as St. John’s Jack Kaiser Volleyball Classic champions after successfully finishing off four separate opponents in two days. This pushes their overall record to a perfect 10-0, their second-best in team history.
This accomplishment is made even more impressive when taking into account not only the jet lag they had to deal with from traveling to the east coast, but also the plane delay that resulted in even less rest. True to form, however, this team proved as they have all year that they are an incredibly motivated and adaptable group.
The Dons wasted no time getting to it on Friday, as they beat the Cornell Big Red in four sets, followed by another victory against the George Mason Patriots in three. Freshman middle blocker Madison Murtagh paced the team with 13 kills in both games, while Junior and Senior setters Kiara McKibben and Jurja Vlasic dominated the stat line with their assists, including a whopping 36 by McKibben in Game 1.
Saturday turned out to be much the same as Friday, as the Dons successfully took down both Central Connecticut and host St. John’s, with contributions coming from all around the team. Katarina Pilepic, Madison Murtagh, Oluoma Okaro, and Courtney Sabahi all contributed via kills, blocks, and aces, which set up a good offensive and defensive tone.
Despite these great all-around contributions from numerous team members, it was sophomore libero Kimberly Gutierrez who took home Most Valuable Player honors by providing several key energy plays, in what may very well be a symbolic representation of this team’s spirit. She totaled a team-high 54 digs over tournament play for the weekend. These hustle plays didn’t go unnoticed by her coach.
“We know how intense she is, but when she’s focused, when she’s on, she’s one of the best at her position in the country,” said head coach Gilad Doran. “When she talks on the court and she’s loud on the court, she’s going to have special moments. After being out with an injury this past spring, I think she really had the time to find that appreciation for coming out and giving everything you have and carrying a team.”
This act of carrying a team, however, also applies to each and every individual, as Doran also notes, “We’re not as deep this year as we were in the past, so we’re relying on everyone to come and be ready to give us what they have on any given day, and I think even this past weekend we had about 12 or 13 players on the travel squad, which is remarkable. The players really feed off each other and really enjoy this challenge as a team. We emphasize team first.”
“I’m pretty proud of them buying into that concept and being more resilient. We really enjoy emphasizing that chance to be together and do something special as a group this year.”
With a continued focus on simply taking it one day at a time, the Dons hope to charge their way into eventual conference play. Too often in sports it’s forgotten that winning can at times be as much, if not more, stressful than losing. It’s easy to get too high at times and fall into periods of complacency.
This team though, figures to avoid falling into such negative patterns as they continue their historic start to their season.
“This weekend was a great win for us,” said Kimberly Gutierrez. Despite all the adversities we faced, we were able to overcome them and move forward. It is amazing to have a winning streak, but we are just starting the season. Winning is just the outcome of our hard work and our cohesiveness. We come to the game like it’s the last one we will play together and give it our best. Nothing is given in this game. We fight together for each point, for each set, for each game; we don’t look back. It’s good to win, but there is more to come our way.”
With that mindset, I fully agree.
Photo courtesy of Emily Rithy