Firedogs win one, lose one in opening NESCAC quad

After an easy non-conference match against Keene State College on Wednesday, the volleyball team began NESCAC play over the weekend, winning one of two matches at the first quad match of the season.

The Firedogs downed the Owls with ease early in the week, 3-0, and remained hot with another 3-0 win against the Polar Bears of Bowdoin College on Friday. Amherst could not keep its momentum going against Colby College, losing a hard-fought match in five games on Saturday.

The Firedogs came into the week a bit disappointed with a second-place finish in the WNEC Invitational, having lost in the finals to a Plymouth State University team that they handled with ease earlier in the tournament. The squad lost four veteran players to graduation before the season, including Annie Hoeksma, a three-time All-NESCAC setter, and has a large incoming class, so much of the loss was chalked up to inexperience. As they entered into conference play this week, the Firedogs hoped to prove that they had learned a valuable lesson in time for NESCAC competition.

The mid-week game against Keene State proved to be a breeze, as the ‘Dogs barely broke a sweat while defeating the Owls in three straight games, 30-18, 30-18, 30-10. Sophomore Jaclyn DeMais helped set a furious pace from the beginning, finishing with an excellent stat line that included 13 kills, 12 digs and three blocks. Kristin Quinn ’07 was also effective around the net, tallying 10 kills and four blocks. Rookie Alison Muzner also made a significant impression, blasting eight kills in only 10 attempts.

Muzner is one of several impact first-years, a group that includes Sarah Heller, who made a big impression by earning all-tournament honors at the WNEC Invitational. Heller continued her excellent play, racking up 33 assists and providing further evidence that she may be talented enough to fill Hoeksma’s considerable shoes.

Defensively, the Firedogs were just as relentless, holding the Owls to just 20 kills in three games, less than half of Amherst’s total.

On Friday the team began their first conference slate against Bowdoin, traditionally one of the weaker teams in the conference. The Firedogs made it clear early and often that they were loath to show any mercy to the obviously inferior Polar Bears, winning the match in straight games, 30-15, 30-23, 30-21. Whitney Kouvaris ’08 led the way on the attack, notching nine kills, while DeMais added four more to go along with three aces. Heller had another stellar match with 26 assists, two kills and an ace.

The back line continued its steady play, with Laura Golden ’07 leading the way with nine digs while co-captain Kate Raddock ’06 and Julie Berkley ’08 chipped in with seven digs apiece. Overall, the Firedogs did what they needed in order to take care of business against a weaker opponent, improving to 5-1 overall and 1-0 in the NESCAC

Amherst would need to step up the intensity in order to compete against the undefeated White Mules of Colby, a team that garnered the fifth seed in the conference tournament last year and looks to improve markedly this season, having lost only one senior to graduation. The Mules team features three experienced seniors up front, each of whom can wallop the ball. This offensive barrage appeared to be a bit too much for the ‘Dogs in the first game, as Colby won 30-22, but Amherst Head Coach Sue Everden showed why she is one of the best in the business, helping her squad to make the proper adjustments as the Firedogs took the next two games 30-24 and 30-23.

With a 2-1 lead, it appeared as though Amherst had Colby on the ropes, but as the fourth game wore on, the Firedogs began to show their inexperience. The Mules won the fourth game 30-22 and walked away with the fifth game and the match in an embarrassing 15-3 shellacking.

Despite the disappointing defeat, the team still had several impressive individual performances. Kouvaris and DeMais once again led the attack, hammering home 20 kills apiece, while Heller had a great all-around game, posting every one of the team’s 34 assists and running down 12 digs as well. Colby’s Megan Devlin was the dominant player of the match, however, scoring 12 kills and 26 digs.

Whether it was fatigue, nervousness or a combination of both, the Amherst squad looked lost in the fifth game.

“We weren’t learning from our mistakes and we all knew it,” said Berkely. “We kept making the same mistakes and in the end the frustration overtook us. Colby didn’t beat us, we beat ourselves.”

The performance against Colby, combined with last week’s surprising loss against Plymouth State, makes it clear that this young team has not yet developed the poise of last year’s veteran squad. The ‘Dogs will have the week off from conference competition, but will host the Amherst Classic on Friday and Saturday, giving them a chance to gain more experience before resuming NESCAC matches. The tournament will be held in LeFrak Gymnasium.