Release courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletic Communications
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Matt Troy walked into the post-game locker room as usual expecting to find a celebration. Why not? The Blue Jay volleyball team (34-0) had just punched its ticket to the program's first-ever National Championship match.
What he walked into was far from what he envisioned.
See, for a team that doesn't have enough players to practice six-on-six – one injury, or one sickness – could be all it takes to derail a fairytale season. And on this Friday night, nearly everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for Troy's group.
But as they have done all season, the Blue Jays continued to fight.
It started at the opening of the match. A fluke lineup miscue forced Hopkins into a rotation error to dig themselves into an early hole against Trinity (Tx.). For most teams, this may cause some early nerves or uneasiness. Not this group. This impressionable bunch of Blue Jays laughed it off, regrouped, and returned to business as usual.
Exchanging blow-for-blow with the Tigers in a back-and-forth opening game, Hopkins scored on three consecutive blocks to close out the first set 25-22, extending its streak to 39-consecutive frames without dropping a set.
From there, in a blink of an eye, the Jays had dominated their way to a 25-16 second-set victory and were firmly in control with a 12-6 advantage in the third.
Then it happened.
Diving after a ball in front of the Blue Jay bench, junior libero Nicole Hada let out a cry that would flip the match, and potentially Hopkins' entire season, on its head.
Hada was helped off the court with an apparent shoulder injury – the same injury she suffered in the season opener that sidelined her for the next 15 matches – and the Blue Jays turned to junior Morgan Wu to replace her. The same Morgan Wu that had been dealing with flu-like symptoms since arriving in Iowa on Tuesday.
With momentum on the side of the Tigers, Trinity would claw its way back to hand Hopkins its first dropped set in nearly seven weeks.
We all know where this story is headed next.
Wu ditched her white top for a fresh black one to fill in as the new libero to open the fourth set, and all of a sudden the Blue Jays once again found their form. Troy turned to his All-American duo of Louisa Kishton and Simone Bliss to reignite the Jays attack, and boy did they deliver.
The pair of outsides combined for 13 kills in the fourth frame, and Lauren Anthony chipped in a pair of her match-high five aces to lead Hopkins to a commanding 25-17 victory.
This leads us back to the post-game locker room. On a night that was a mini-microcosm of the entire season, these Blue Jays weren't thinking about their remarkable 34th-straight victory, nor did they grasp the historical significance of becoming the first Johns Hopkins women's team to advance to a Division III National Championship game.
Instead there were tears. Not tears of joy, but tears of knowing that 10% of their team was absent from that post-game locker room.
Troy looked around the room and debated whether to perform the team's normal ritual of going one-by-one and having each player give their thoughts on the match.
"It's tradition, we can't get rid of it now," said Troy.
With nearly every player fighting back tears, the thoughts were widespread. Praise for Wu, who could barely muster any words afterwards; shout outs for Bliss, Kishton, Hannah Korslund and Natalie Aston, the veterans who have been the teams leaders all season long; recognition for Annelisa O'Neal and Rachel DePencier for keeping up the team's morale; and big kudos for Anthony, who turned in one of her best performances of the season.
But one message was uniform – tomorrow's championship match would be for Nicole.
All season long, the motto has been "1-0". Now, Hopkins will have one final opportunity to go "1-0". One last chance to finish off a perfect season, and one more time to show the volleyball world what a group of ten young women can do when they have each other's backs.