Panther volleyball tops Tufts, takes title

MEDFORD, Mass. — The second-seeded Middlebury College volleyball team on Sunday upset No. 1 Tufts (24-3) in five sets (14-25, 25-19, 25-19, 24-26, 15-11) to win its fifth NESCAC title and earn the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Division III tournament. The Panthers also won the league’s title in 1997, 1998, 2010 and 2012.
The 18-8 Panthers will open NCAA play at an eight-team Regional scheduled from this Friday through Sunday at SUNY Brockport in New York. Middlebury will meet Ithaca College on Friday in the first round, and next play either Brockport or Gallaudet University on Saturday. The regional final is set for Sunday; the winner will advance to a Nov. 17 quarterfinal with the semifinals and final set for Nov. 18 and 19.
This past weekend, the Panthers also gave Coach Sarah Raunecker her 400th career win, reaching that milestone in Middlebury’s three-set NESCAC semifinal win over Amherst on Saturday. Raunecker, who is in her 22nd season, saw her career mark improve to 401-217 with Sunday’s victory.
In Sunday’s decisive final set, Tufts led, 10-6, but Middlebury racked up seven-straight points for a 13-10 lead. Two kills from Isabel Sessions, one from Eliana Schaefer and four Tufts errors comprised the spurt. After a Middlebury error cut the Panther lead to two, a Jumbo attack error and a block by Schaefer and Melanie English secured the championship point.
After Tufts rolled in the opening set, 25-14, Middlebury broke away from an 8-8 tie to lead, 18-13, on a block by Alice Roberts and Sarah Staver. Tufts sliced the lead to 20-19, but Middlebury scored the final five points on Jumbo hitting errors to tie the match at a set apiece.
In the third set, the Jumbos took a 7-3 lead, but the Panthers fought back. With the scored tied at 14-14, Middlebury rattled off a 7-2 spurt sparked by two kills from Becca Raffel for a 21-16 lead. Tufts cut the deficit to three (22-19), but the Panthers closed out the set with one kill from Chellsa Ferdinand and two by English.
The Panthers nearly closed out the match in four sets, even though Tufts took a lead of 24-19 in the next set. Middlebury tied the set at 24-24 as Raffel had a pair of kills, but two Panther miscues gave the Jumbos the 26-24 victory and forced the decisive fifth set.
Raffel led the Panther attack with 15 kills to go along with a career-high 26 digs, while Sessions added 12 kills. Hannah Blackburn handed out 23 assists and produced a career-best 29 digs, while Gigi Alper and Emily Kolodka had 26 and 16 digs, respectively. English led the Panthers at the net with a block solo and five block assists, while Schaefer, Roberts and Staver each had three block assists.
On Saturday, Middlebury advanced to the final for the first time since 2012 with a 25-22, 25-16, 25-23 win over No. 3 Amherst.  
Raffel led the Panther attack with 16 kills to go along with eight digs, while Sarah Staver and Sessions each chipped in with nine kills. Blackburn handed out 34 assists and produced 10 digs, while Alper, Claire White-Dzuro and Kolodka had 17, 15 and 10 digs, respectively.
On Friday, Middlebury took out No. 7 Bates in a tough four-set match (25-21, 22-25, 25-22, 25-21). 
Raffel led a balanced Panther attack with a career-high 22 kills to go along with 14 digs, while Roberts, Staver and Sessions each chipped in with nine kills. Blackburn notched 45 assists and 27 digs, while Alper and Kolodka had 15 and 10 digs, respectively. Roberts led the Panthers at the net with six total blocks, English had five blocks, while Staver had three blocks. 

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