In 2018, Boston College volleyball blazed through its non-conference schedule, winning nine straight games to begin the season before falling to Harvard. In 2019, life hasn’t been quite as easy for the Eagles, who began the campaign by dropping two of three games at the Oregon Classic.
This past weekend, BC’s up-and-down start to the season continued at the Rhode Island Challenge. The Eagles began the three-match slate with consecutive wins over Bryant and Rhode Island, before dropping a back-and-forth five-set match with Albany on Saturday to cap the weekend.
Albany 3, BC 2 (Sat.)
In the weekend finale against the Great Danes, BC (9-4) got off to a slow start. A kill from Akuabata Okenwa and an error from Cat Balido put Albany (4-9) up, 13-8, and the Eagles never recovered. They drew within a point twice, trailing, 18-17 and 21-20, but never held the lead again and lost the first frame, 25-22, after a bad set from Jane DeJarld.
The second set saw BC flip the script and start fast, as back-to-back kills from Clare Naughton gave the Eagles an early 7-1 advantage. Albany briefly rallied, cutting BC’s lead to 14-10 after a service error from Jewel Strawberry, but the Eagles locked down, ensuring that the Great Danes never truly got back into the set. Strawberry atoned for her error by finishing off the frame with a kill to help BC draw even in the match.
After a back-and-forth start to the third saw Albany knot the set at 20-20, Strawberry once again helped the Eagles pull away. The sophomore, who finished with a team-high 20 kills, hit winners on three consecutive points to give BC a 23-20 edge. Balido finished off the frame with two straight kills of her own, helping the Eagles finish off a 25-21 set win and take a 2-1 lead in the match.
The fourth set was almost a carbon copy of the third, with one cruel twist for BC. Winners from Strawberry, Naughton, and Carly Kutschke gave the Eagles a commanding 23-19 lead, but this time BC wasn’t able to hold it. Okenwa had three kills, as the Great Danes won four of the next five points to tie the set at 24 apiece. Torey Baum answered with a winner of her own to give the Eagles set and match point, yet a service ace from Andersen Vaughan swung the momentum back to Albany, and a Strawberry error sent the match to a fifth and final set.
Much like the match itself, the tie-breaking frame was back-and-forth. Eventually, however, Okenwa, who matched Strawberry with 20 kills, proved to be the difference. With the set deadlocked at nine, she struck for two winners in a row, giving the Great Danes a lead they would never relinquish. BC drew within one point at 14-13 to put the pressure on, but Naughton made a critical error on match point, giving Albany the set, 15-13, and the match.
BC 3, Rhode Island 2 (Fri.)
In the first five-set match of the weekend, the Eagles emerged victorious over a resilient URI (5-7) team. In the first set, BC looked like it would cruise to victory, seizing a 9-6 lead after three straight kills from Jewel Strawberry and a winner from Kutschke. The Eagles kept piling on the pressure, with an ace from Torey Baum extending the advantage to 18-10, and the Rams never drew closer than six points after that. Five consecutive BC points gave the Eagles a 25-13 set win.
URI bounced back in dramatic fashion to draw even in the second frame. Claire Chaplinsky hammered a service ace to even the score at 24-24, and the frame see-sawed into extra points. Cat Balido, who finished with 12 winners, twice kept the Eagles in the game on set point with kills. But, ultimately, the Rams were able to string together two consecutive points, taking the frame, 30-28, after Strockis made an error on a spike.
BC rallied from a 16-14 deficit to take a 21-19 lead in the third set, but wasn’t able to hold on. URI quickly responded with a kill and a service ace from Abby Fillion to tie the set back up, and the teams traded the next four points. With the set hanging in the balance, though, Hazel Brown came through with a clutch kill for the Rams, and an error from Baum handed URI the set and a 2-1 lead in the match.
Perhaps upset at losing a late lead in the previous frame, the Eagles came out on fire in the fourth. After the teams split the first six points, BC rattled off nine straight, with a kill from Naughton giving the Eagles a commanding 12-3 lead. URI tried to counter, but never cut the lead to less than eight points. BC comfortably cruised to a 25-16 set victory, setting the table for a decisive fifth set.
Unfortunately, that fifth set was short on drama. Amaka Chukwujekwu gave the Eagles a quick 5-1 lead with an early winner, and, much like in the fourth set, the early run put BC in control for the rest of the game. Strawberry fittingly punctuated a dominant final set with two more of her 14 kills, and one last winner from Izzy Clavenna gave the Eagles a 15-7 set win and a victory over the Rams.
BC 3, Bryant 0 (Fri.)
In the first match of the weekend, BC had no trouble disposing of the Bulldogs (5-10), beating them in straight sets. Ten different Eagles players recorded at least two kills in a balanced offensive effort. That balance was on full display in the first set. After Bryant cut an early BC lead to 8-7, Chukwujekwu, Balido, Kutschke, Naughton, and Strawberry all answered back with winners of their own, helping the Eagles out to a dominant 18-10 advantage. The Bulldogs rattled off four straight points to climb back into the set, but BC ensured that it wouldn’t give up the lead. Balido spearheaded the Eagles’ attack with two more kills, and an error from Bryant’s James Riley lifted BC to a 25-18 set victory.
Set two followed an eerily similar pattern. After the Bulldogs drew to within one point, trailing just 9-8, BC again pulled away with a dominant stretch. Balido put the Eagles up, 18-10, with one of her team-high nine kills, and BC coasted from there. Silvia Ianeselli scored the last two points of the match for the Eagles, who won the second set by the exact same margin as the first, 25-18.
In the third and final set, Bryant finally remained competitive throughout, seizing a 20-17 advantage after Madison McKnight committed an error on a serve. Yet another service error from Strawberry put BC in a 22-18 hole, but boosted by back-to-back attack errors from the Bulldogs’ Haley O’Brien, the Eagles responded with a 6-0 run to give themselves match point. Balido, fittingly, finished off the match with one final winner, to give BC the sweep and a great start to the weekend.
In 2018, BC swept its first three invitationals of the season, yet head coach Jason Kennedy’s team has achieved that feat in just one of four weekend tournaments thus far this season. The Eagles certainly have stars—Chukwujekwu has the highest hitting percentage in the ACC—and both Strawberry and Balido have proven themselves to be potent offensive weapons, despite consistency struggles early in the season. That consistency will certainly have to develop quickly, with the conference schedule looming.
Featured Image Courtesy of BC Athletics