Entering Friday, Boston College volleyball knew it was facing a tough task. Louisville was ranked 16th in the nation according to NCAA RPI, and despite the remarkable season the Eagles have had, they found themselves over 100 spots lower in that ranking at 118.
After BC opened up a 2-1 set lead on Friday, Louisville dominated the fourth set, 25-13, shifting momentum back to their bench. But these Eagles have owned five-set matches this year and can never be counted out. They took the fifth set, 15-8, moving BC to 7-1 in five-set matches and knocking off the Cardinals in the process.
“For us it was just kind of maintaining our focus and being able to finish and compete down the stretch,” head coach Jason Kennedy said. “We made some pretty poor choices in the sets we lost. We really didn’t play the IQ-sort of game we needed to beat a team that good. We played a much smarter fifth set, second set, third set, all the way around.”
Amaka Chukwujekwu led the way with 14 kills and six blocks for the Eagles (17-7, 8-3 Atlantic Coast) in the victory, while Jill Strockis added 17 digs and five blocks of her own. Jewel Strawberry notched 12 kills and three crucial service aces as well. BC was outhit overall but sported better hitting percentages than the Cardinals (15-6, 8-3) in the three sets it won.
Louisville showed how it has gotten to such a stellar record in the first set. BC was struggling to put balls away, tallying a sub-.200 hitting percentage in the frame. Aiko Jones powered the Cardinals to a 25-18 victory with seven of her match-best 18 kills in the first set.
After the break, the Eagles came out with fire in the second. A quick 3-0 lead from an ace, a kill, and a block added to BC’s confidence for the rest of the match. Despite the Eagles cutting down on errors and playing a much cleaner second set, the score remained tight throughout. With the set tied, 23-23, Louisville head coach Dani Busboom won a challenge on a point that BC was originally awarded, and instead created a set point for Louisville.
But the resilient Eagles survived three set points, including a pivotal block by Chukwujekwu on Jones. Now with the score tied, the junior middle blocker got up again and sent a Clare Chaussee spike back to the Louisville floor. A subsequent error would earn the momentum-shifting set for BC, 28-26.
“Amaka is a phenomenal volleyball player,” Kennedy said. “Right now, she’s a threat offensively, she’s a threat defensively, she does so many little things for us that don’t even show up on the stat sheet. She slows balls down, she draws people with her, so just having her out there and her presence is huge.”
The third set featured much of the same back-and-forth play, with the score remaining close throughout. BC was able to open up its largest lead of the frame at 16-12, riding a four-point run that included a pair of kills from Strawberry. But after a timely timeout, the Cardinals responded with a four-point stretch of their own to knot the score.
With the set tied at 23, a marathon point ended with a Clare Naughton putaway. Then, on set point, Strawberry fired a serve that the Cardinals judged to be heading out. Instead, the ball found the inside of the line for an ace, and a 2-1 set lead for Kennedy’s group.
After all of the momentum gained by winning a pair of close sets, the Eagles appeared to give it back to the Cardinals in the fourth. Louisville jumped out to an early 6-3 lead and never looked back. BC had 10 total errors in the set compared to just three for Louisville. The Cardinals’ dynamic freshman duo of Jones and Amber Stirvins was on display in the fourth, as the pair combined for seven kills en route to a 25-13 decision.
Reeling from the fourth set loss, BC had the eye of the tiger in the fifth frame. Back-to-back spikes from Chukwujekwu staked the Eagles to an early lead, but Louisville fought back to tie it, 3-3. BC, however, would score the next three points on two kills and a block, and it would prove to be all the room it needed.
From that point forward, the Eagles never relinquished the lead, and 11 kills at a .394 clip was an indicator of what we’ve been reminded all season: The Eagles play their best volleyball when it matters most. BC would roll to a 15-8 victory to knock off the Cardinals.
For a program that won just seven games in 2017, Kennedy’s system has made a world of difference in realizing the talent on this roster, and it is showing in conference play. Other than Pittsburgh which is undefeated in ACC play, the Eagles are tied for second with just three conference losses. With seven games to play, 20 wins could very well be on the horizon—a number that would have been hard to fathom a few years ago.
Featured Image by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor