c/o Wes Athletics

c/o Wesleyan Athletics

The Wesleyan volleyball team started the season with a bang, winning its first 11 games, including matches against nationally ranked No. 19 Tufts, Trinity, Colby, and Bates, during which they dropped only four sets—marking their best start since 1989. The highlight of the first half of their regular season was a sweep against Tufts, which was especially meaningful for the team after being upset by the Jumbos in the NESCAC Championship last season.

KG Morton ’24 could tell that this team was something special during this run.

“A month into the season, we had this special practice with seniors and freshmen, where we were trying to integrate them into a few things,” Morton said. “And then we came back the next day, and the gym was humming. And then it stayed that way for the rest of the week, and I was like ‘Okay, this team is different.’”

Boasting an 11–0 record, the Cardinals traveled to New York City on Sunday, Oct. 1 to face NYU in their toughest game to date. It was the Red and Black’s third game in three days, making the challenge taller. It was a tightly contested match, with each team scoring at least 20 points in each set, but the Violets ultimately prevailed in four sets. 

Bella Ahearn ’23 M.A. ’24 spoke on what the team took from their only regular season loss and how it helped them grow.

“I think that it taught us a lot about what we needed to work on as a team,” Ahearn said. “And we did get better at those things. I think something that was really interesting about this year is that we got better every single week. And losing to NYU—although it was a little disappointing, we learned from it and got a lot better so that we could compete at a higher level.”

The following weekend the Cardinals faced Williams and Amherst with the Little Three title on the line. The Ephs stole the first set 22–25 but the Red and Black bounced back, winning the second set 25–22. The two teams split the third (21–25) and fourth (25–23) sets, and the Cardinals, despite feeling exhausted, showcased the grit they pride themselves on and decisively dominated the fifth set, winning 15–8.

c/o Wes Athletics

c/o Wesleyan Athletics

Michelle Jorba ’25 spoke about the closeness of the Williams match.

“It’s kind of a joke, but we say we love five-set games because we didn’t lose a single one this entire season,” Jorba said. “It was just that mentality of ‘It’s not over until the last point.’ And I think that really helped us mentally check in and be able to push through against Williams.”

The game concluded at 9 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 6, but with their matchup against Amherst taking place the next day at 2 p.m., there was no time for the Cardinals to rest. Despite any exhaustion the team faced, they pushed past it and delivered a resounding victory against the Mammoths, sweeping them and securing their second straight Little Three title. 

The next weekend, on Friday, Oct. 13, the Cards took on Conn. College and handily swept them without letting the Camels get more than 15 points in any of the sets. Wes showed its talent and an amazing ability to not give its opponents any hope as the Camels never held a lead past 3–2 in any set. But the Camels were not the match that Wesleyan had circled on the calendar. The focal point of the weekend came a day later against rival Bowdoin.

The Polar Bears have garnered a reputation as Cardinal-killers in the past few years as they beat Wes four times in a row between 2019 and 2022, one of those times being the 2021 NESCAC Championship match. With no love lost between the teams, the players felt motivated to finally show that Wes was the better squad and that Bowdoin’s win streak was a fluke. 

Morton spoke of the team’s mentality going into that game.

“I think the past few years, we’ve particularly struggled with Bowdoin, not only because we’ve been away, but because once you create that association [in] your brain of ‘Man, we always lose to this team,’ you believe the things that you tell yourself over and over,” Morton said. “This year, we were like, ‘We’re just not going to let ourselves think that anymore. We’ve got something to prove.’”

And prove it they did as the Red and Black took down the Polar Bears in four sets, ending their winning streak and dislodging the mental block that had hindered the Cards in the past.

The following weekend saw the Cardinals pick up two out-of-conference road wins against Salve Regina University and Emerson College on Friday, Oct. 20 and Saturday, Oct. 21, respectively, which improved the team’s record to 17–1. 

The players returned home for Fall Break ready to close out the regular season with two NESCAC road games against Middlebury and Hamilton. It was the senior game for both teams, and the Cardinals knew they had to play their best ball and be willing to adapt.

“One of the things that really differentiated us this season was our depth,” Jorba said. “Everyone in our gym can step up in any position. And in the Middlebury game, we tried different lineups. We tried a combination; the first set didn’t work, tried a combination and the second set didn’t work. And then we tried a third and that was the winning combination.”

The matchup against Middlebury proved to be everything the Cardinals expected, with the Panthers jumping out to a 2–1 set lead. The Cardinals, like they have all season, punched back, winning the final two sets and spoiling the Panthers’ senior game. With this win, the Red and Black clinched the No. 1 seed in the NESCAC and ensured they would host the NESCAC tournament for the second straight year. Despite their matchup against Hamilton holding no importance in the standings, the Cardinals kept their foot on the gas and defeated the Continentals in straight sets. The Red and Black concluded their regular season with a program-best 19–1 record. The team was undefeated in conference play (10–0) and undefeated at home (10–0) for the first time in program history.

While the regular season games etched the 2023 season into the history books, the job was not done as the Cards turned their attention to the NESCAC Championships.

On Sunday, Nov. 5, the Red and Black matched up with Amherst in the quarterfinals. Just as they had done in their regular season matchup, the Cards swept the Mammoths with a kill by Jorba, sealing the win and a spot in the semifinals.

Against all odds, the tenth-seeded Bowdoin team survived matchups against seventh-seeded Hamilton and second-seeded Colby to earn another shot to play at the Cards at Silloway on Friday, Nov. 10. Before the game even started, disaster struck Sophia Lindus ’26 during warmups.

“Second swing of warm ups, I go up, hit it, land with my left leg, super stiff, and then my knee just bends in,” Lindus said. “And I immediately heard a pop that felt just like static all the way down my leg. That was not the way I wanted to end the season per se. But at the same time, sitting on the bench and watching that game, I’ve never felt so proud of a group of people before in my life.”

Losing Lindus before the game was a worst-case-scenario type of situation, but the team rallied and knew what they had to do.

“We all huddled as a team and were like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this, we’re going to fight for Sophia,’” Ahearn said. “Everyone take a deep breath, and play our game.”

The Cardinals came out firing, winning the first two sets comfortably. In the third they took several early leads, but Bowdoin kept pulling themselves back within a few points, and as the scores climbed, the Cards found themselves up 24–23 with a match point to come. On the play, Bowdoin was able to survive and tie the score at 24 apiece, but the Cardinals suffered a big blow as defensive specialist Elli Moreno ’27 went down with an injury. Two key players were injured in a playoff game. The volleyball gods seemed to be Bowdoin fans that afternoon as Bowdoin took that third set 26–24, rubbing salt in the wound. But Wes was nowhere close to giving up.

Two players down, the Cards rallied and pushed through the fourth set, overcoming deficits of 9–14, 12–17, and 15–19 to win the match with a 10–3 run.

“It is so hard to see someone get injured, not just because they’re your friend. You don’t want them to get hurt, but also because you sort of think, ‘Oh my God, I could get injured,’” Lindus said. “So to see all of them compartmentalize it so quickly, but also keep this fire in them—it was so awesome to see on the site. I feel like there’s no other way to put it except for just electric. That was the energy in the gym.”

The Cardinals recorded a season-high 12 aces, securing a third straight trip to the NESCAC finals, where they would face off against Williams in a rematch of their five-set thriller from October.

The first set was a back-and-forth battle with Williams jumping out to an early lead and the Cardinals ultimately battling back to tie it at 22. The Red and Black won three of the next four points and took the first set 25–23. The second set was less competitive with the Cardinals enjoying runs of six and eight straight points. Jorba closed out the set with one of her game-high nine kills to put the Cardinals one set away from winning their second NESCAC Championship. The third set followed a similar trajectory to the first with the two squads trading runs. However, akin to performance throughout the year in closely contested sets, the Cardinals came through with crucial plays in pivotal moments, highlighted by a kill by captain Mariko Tanaka ’24 that clinched the set, game, and NESCAC Championship for the Red and Black.

“There was a lot of emotion,” Ahearn said. “We all just started crying and cheering together. And I’m like, ‘We did it, it happened.’ I’ve been here for five years, and I’ve wanted this since the moment I walked into this gym, and I cannot believe we finally did it. We all worked so hard and went through so much, especially losing two people the night before, and it was just pure bliss. I’m gonna remember that for a very long time.”

With this win the Cardinals earned their sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance and traveled down to Baltimore, Maryland to the regional rounds hosted by Johns Hopkins University from Thursday, Nov. 16 to Saturday, Nov. 18.

“Once you’re in [the NCAAs], every team deserves to be there,” Jorba said. “And there has to be this mutual respect of, they have worked just as hard as you have this season. Everyone’s pretty much on the same level. And so it’s just like, who wants it more? Who wants to work harder?”

In the first round against Gallaudet University, the Cardinals swept the Bisons (25–22, 25–21, 25–21). While each set was fairly close, the drive from Wes helped them keep the lead for the vast majority of the match and they never took their foot off the gas.

This momentum carried them into a second-round matchup with Christopher Newport University the very next day. The first set started shakily as the Cardinals could not quite catch up to the Captains, but they took their first lead at 16–15 and never looked back, cruising to two sets up, each by the score of 25–19. The third looked like more of the same as Wes was up 14–10 halfway through, but the Captains used a 9–0 run to propel them to a commanding lead and flipped the script, with the Cards losing the set 19–25. The fourth set saw Wes back in their winning ways as the Cards won 11 of the last 12 points to secure a place in the Sweet Sixteen. 

This is where the season ended for the Cardinals, as they fell to the No. 9-ranked Johns Hopkins Blue Jays. The first and third sets were decided by only two points each, but both were won by the Blue Jays 25–23 as they gave Wesleyan its second and final loss of the season.

When all was said and done, Wesleyan had a Little Three Championship, perfect 10–0 NESCAC record, NESCAC Championship, and trip to the Sweet Sixteen. On top of this, four Cardinals made the All-NESCAC teams. Jorba was awarded the second team, and Lindus, Morton, and captain Bianca Ortiz ’24 (who also won NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year) took home first team honors. Lindus was also awarded NESCAC Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, and earned American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American Third Team honors. Head coach Ben Somera was also recognized as NESCAC Coach of the Year for the first time in his career.

2023 is and was the year of Wesleyan volleyball, and just a few short weeks after the end of the season, the players are already looking forward to stepping back into Silloway next year to set a new bar of excellence in sport.

“They’re gonna have a big class of freshmen,” Morton said. “And a big class of freshman can be tricky. But it also can be really fun. So I think the best is still yet to come for Wesleyan volleyball.”

Sam Weitzman-Kurker can be reached at sweitzmankur@wesleyan.edu.

Ethan Lee can be reached at ejlee@wesleyan.edu.