To win its first Division III national title, the Johns Hopkins volleyball team knew it needed to be perfect. Entering the championship match against Emory, the Blue Jays were running on fumes.
Senior middle blocker Hannah Korslund played all 35 matches despite a torn labrum in her hip. Junior libero Morgan Wu was so sick with flu-like symptoms during the Blue Jays’ four-day stay in Cedar Rapids, Iowa — the site of the tournament quarterfinals, semifinals and final — that she was directed to sleep through practices so that she could play in the matches. Fellow junior libero Nicole Hada dislocated her left shoulder in the third set of the team’s four-set win against Trinity in the semifinal round, and sophomore middle blocker Lauren Anthony powered through a twisted ankle in the title match.
“We kind of joked that we had so few people and that we were pretty banged up by the end that we couldn’t have played more than three sets,” senior outside hitter Louisa Kishton said with a laugh. “So that does feel pretty wild. We knew our game plan going in and thought we could take care of it if we played our game.”
Injuries and illnesses proved to be just slight speed bumps in the Blue Jays’ march to their first NCAA crown. The straight-sets victory (25-23, 25-22, 25-18) over Emory on Nov. 23 capped a 35-0 season, with Johns Hopkins joining Washington University in 1992 and Central (Iowa) in 1999 as the only teams in Division III history to complete a perfect run to the national championship.
Introducing: Your 2019 @NCAADIII National Champions!
“It honestly feels surreal,” junior outside hitter Simone Bliss said. “After we won, initially I couldn’t think about it at all. It actually took me a couple days for it to sink in. It’s starting to sink in a little bit now that I’m a little bit more removed, but it feels like when I get back to campus, I will still have practice, like there’s still more to go.”
How dominant were the Blue Jays, who set a program record for victories in a single season? They were extended to five sets only once, a 3-2 win at Randolph-Macon on Sept. 10. And in six matches in the NCAA tournament, they dropped only one set.
“I think it shows just how hard they work on honing their abilities and the amount of prep we put in every game to be as efficient as possible,” coach Matt Troy said. “We talked about where we were as a team, but our focus was on the process and supporting one another every single point.”
Johns Hopkins has not been a stranger to the postseason, having advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2016 and 2018 and the third round in 2017 and qualified seven times overall. But this year was the first time the school made it to the quarterfinals, and Kishton said she thinks a starting lineup that included two seniors, two juniors and two sophomores helped provide the team with a sense of stability.
“We had a pretty old team,” she said. “The starting lineup is mostly juniors and seniors and our two sophomores, who are really fantastic. So I think we just had a lot of maturity, and that allowed us to play really consistently. Obviously, there are a lot of good teams out there, but I think our maturity really helped.”
That ability to remain composed was tested in the season-opening sweep of Millikin on Aug. 30. Hada first dislocated her shoulder in the third set of that match and sat out 14 matches. During her absence, the team turned back upset bids from three ranked opponents in No. 23 Clarkson on Sept. 20, No. 24 Ithaca on Sept. 21 and No. 8 Juniata on Sept. 27.
“After we beat Juniata and Hada wasn’t there, it was kind of like, ‘OK, we can do this with anybody,’ ” Bliss recalled. “It’s not like I didn’t believe in us before because I did. But [Juniata was] the most challenging team. We have sort of a rivalry going on because they’ve beaten us before and we’ve beaten them. … After that, it was like, ‘OK, our team is more than just so-and-so is good at blocking or hitting or setting. Our team is capable of fighting any adversity that comes our way.’”
While players like Bliss, a member of the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s All-America first team, and Kishton, an AVCA second-team selection, were fixtures for Johns Hopkins, they were complemented by rising contributors. After sitting out last season, junior setter Natalie Aston returned to become the Centennial Conference Player of the Year and an AVCA first-team All American with team highs in both assists (1,145) and service aces (77).
Wu, who finished last year with 39 kills and 23 assists as an opposite hitter, readily agreed to switch to libero after Hada’s injury. And when an unspecified injury sidelined Aston for the Centennial Conference tournament, freshman Annelisa O’Neal filled in and helped the Blue Jays not miss a beat.
“I was extremely proud of our freshman setter Annelisa O’Neal handling two of the biggest games of the season at the time,” Troy said. “Annelisa with limited college game experience came in confident and composed, helping the team to two victories and a fourth straight Centennial Conference championship.”
Troy, who returned to the helm after leading the program from 2010 to 2012 before spending six years in the same position at Mary Washington, replaced Tim Cole, who had been placed on administrative leave Aug. 10, 2018. Bliss credited Troy with connecting with the players.
“He has a lot to offer and to bring in terms of coaching and teaching,” she said. “He really wants to work with people. He didn’t just come in and announce, ‘It’s my show! Do this! Don’t do that!’ He really worked hard to try to understand what our culture was and work with us. He reached out to the seniors and everyone on the team so that we could understand what our team was about. I think this season was really a partnership between us and him.”
Kishton said there was almost a sense of relief among the players after years of prioritizing a national championship among its list of objectives. And the timing of the achievement was not lost on her.