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CMS Volleyball Wins Thrilling Five-Setter over Wartburg for Regional Championship

WAVERLY, Iowa – Brenna Bell had her career-high 18th kill on the Athenas' fourth match point, as the No. 3 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps volleyball team defeated No. 4 Wartburg in a dramatic five-setter in the regional finals of the NCAA Division III Tournament, battling back from a 2-0 deficit to win 26-28, 20-25, 25-20, 25-18, 18-16 on Sunday afternoon.

With the win, CMS improves to 30-1 and advances to the national quarterfinals for the fourth time in program history, including the third in the last seven years, where it will open up on Thursday against Berry at 3:30 p.m. (Pacific time). The first CMS quarterfinal appeance was in 1993, during an era when there were only four regionals, and the Athenas fell in the regional final to UC San Diego (after wins over Redlands and Trinity). CMS reached the nationals for the first time in 2014 under the current eight-regional format, where it fell to Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the quarterfinals in five sets (16-14 in the fifth). The Athenas then made it back in 2017, when they captured the national title with a 3-0 win over Wittenberg, the first women's national title in CMS history.

Wartburg, which came into the match undefeated on the season, ends its 2021 campaign with a 29-1 record after coming up two points short as regional hosts. Jenna Holmes tied Bell for CMS-high honors with 18 kills and added a career-high 30 digs, while libero Dede Carranza also had a career-high in digs with 38. Jackie Jones added 16 kills, Melanie Williams had 15 and Audrey Sawyer had 12 for a balanced Athena attack.

CMS appeared to be on the verge of closing out the win by taking control of the fifth set early, continuing its momentum after winning the third and fourth sets 25-20 and 25-18. Jones had two straight kills to start it and Georgia McGovern had an ace to put the Athenas ahead 3-0 and force a quick Wartburg timeout.

CMS maintained at least a three-point lead until late in the set, when it went ahead 13-9 on a Williams kill to stand two points away from the regional title. The Knights, though, stormed back with four straight points to tie it 13-13 and put a lot of pressure on the Athenas to close it out, especially after CMS dropped the first set 28-26 after letting four set points get away.  

Holmes had a big kill to stop the 4-0 run and give CMS its first match point, but Jayme Willemsen answered with a kill for Wartburg. Holmes again gave CMS a one-point lead with another kill, and the Knights answered, and then Bell had her 17th kill to give CMS a 16-15 lead. After an exchange of errors gave CMS its fourth match point at 17-16, Bell took a set from Spencer Hagenbuch and put it down to give the Athenas the dramatic 18-16 fifth set, and the regional title.

The first set saw CMS fall 28-26, after it had four set points, all of which were fought off by Wartburg kills. The Athenas started fast with kills from Jackie Jones and Melanie Williams for a 2-0 lead, but Wartburg came back with three straight points for its first lead. The two teams went back-and-forth throughout the set, and after Wartburg went up 22-20, Bell, Jones and Williams rattled off kills for a 23-22 CMS lead and forced a Knights timeout.

An attack error gave the Athenas two set points at 24-22, but Kylie Bildstein fought them both off with kills, and then fought off another tie it 26-26 after Williams' eighth kill of the set, starting the set-ending 3-0 run.

CMS fell behind 8-3 early in the second as it tried to regroup, and couldn't come all the way back. Brenna Bell had three kills to help swing the momentum, and a Kelsey Polhemus block and a Georgia McGovern ace brought the Athenas within 12-11 and forced a Wartburg timeout. The Knights swung the momentum back their way and went ahead 19-14 after Allison Feigenbaum had a kill and a block in succession.

Bell came back with two straight kills, and Jenna Holmes had an ace to close to within 19-17 and force another Wartburg timeout. The Knights were able to hold on, though, and took the second set 25-20 to take a 2-0 lead.   

CMS put up some gaudy individual numbers, with four players recording double-doubles. Holmes had 18 kills and 30 digs, Jones had 16 kills and 12 digs, Georgia McGovern had 44 assists and 19 digs, and Hagenbuch had 29 assists and 11 digs. Bell came up one dig short of making it five players with double-doubles, finishing with 18 kills and nine digs.

If the Athenas defeat Berry in Thursday's quarterfinals, they will face a team that they have played this season in Friday's national semifinals, as they would draw the winner between Trinity and Calvin. CMS defeated Trinity 3-1 when the Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the nation, while Calvin handed the Athenas their only loss of the year. The other side of the bracket features Juniata, MIT, Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Tufts.