CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—The dream season finished with a fairy-tale ending. A program that entered the 2019 season without ever winning an NCAA regional finished the season being showered on the court with sky blue and white streamers.
Johns Hopkins completed a magical season Saturday night, sweeping defending champions Emory in straight sets, 25-23, 25-22, 25-18, to give the Blue Jays their first-ever NCAA Division III volleyball national championship at U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
"For me right now, the feeling is just absolute joy for them," Johns Hopkins coach Matt Troy said. "They've worked so hard and been through quite a bit. Just complete joy seeing them be able to have this moment."
Added outside hitter Louisa Kishton, one of two seniors on JHU's 10-player roster: "Our freshman year was our first-ever NCAA tournament win. Just seeing that growth, going from that first NCAA tournament win to national champions in 2019 is absolutely insane."
Hopkins championship march was both dominant and one for the record books. The Blue Jays (35-0) became the first team in 20 years, and just the third all-time, to finish the season undefeated. Twenty-nine of those 35 matches ended in straight sets, and Hopkins dropped just eight sets all season. In six NCAA tournament matches, JHU lost just one set, that coming in a semifinal win against Trinity (Texas) on Friday night.
"I think it's just hard work," Troy said. "Hard work and just putting in that work every single day."
Added junior outside hitter Simone Bliss: "We faced some adversity throughout the tournament. But we've always been able to overcome it through leaning on each other."
Adversity came in the semifinal round when junior libero Nicole Hada suffered a shoulder injury, the same injury that kept her out of 15 games early in the season. Hada left in the third set with the Blue Jays up 15-12 against Trinity University, but Hopkins went on to lose that set, snapping a 40-set winning streak that dated to Oct. 17. The Blue Jays rebounded to win the fourth set and a spot in the national championship game, but the injury was a significant blow. The loss of Hada dropped the Blue Jays to nine players, and her replacement, junior Morgan Wu, played through flu-like symptoms.
"In some ways, it is a disadvantage having only 10, because when someone goes out, it's a big deal," Bliss said. "But because of that we've learned to adjust and really become more all-around players, not just locked into your position wherever you play. On the flip side of that, it's actually a huge advantage because we are so tight. If you're having a bad day, there's no subs."
In Saturday's national championship game, the shorthanded Blue Jays raced out to a 5-0 lead in the first set, but Emory (34-3) battled back. Leah Saunders and Tara Martin supplied consistent pressure as the Eagles quickly settled in and eventually took a 14-13 lead.
Momentum continued to shift as the teams battled to a 22-22 tie, and a Natalie Aston kill gave the Blue Jays the lead. On set point, with JHU leading 24-23, a back-and-forth rally that had Hopkins scrambling defensively ended when a Bliss dig sailed over the Eagles and landed just inside the back line. Just like so many times during the season, a set that could have gone either way ended in the Blue Jays favor.
"I feel like we plan extremely well going into a match," Troy said. "They're just such an intelligent group to work with, and when you have that combo of great athletes along with extreme intelligence, the sky's the limit. they're just so much fun to coach."
Set two was more of the same. Momentum was fleeting as the Eagles worked their way to a 17-13 edge. But Kishton and Lauren Anthony scored back-to-back kills to put the Blue Jays within striking distance, and Bliss notched two of her match-leading 21 kills as Johns Hopkins took a 22-20 lead.
Later, Kishton and Anthony combined for a block to clinch a 25-22 set win and a 2-0 lead. Ten of junior Natalie Aston's 36 assists came in the second set.
"The hitters make my job super easy," Aston said. "They're wanting the ball, being super aggressive with their swings, just finding every little seam. It was incredible the way they moved the ball around.
The third set proved to be little more than a coronation—the Blue Jays never trailed en route to a 25-18 win. Bliss, the tournament's most outstanding player, notched nine kills in the set. Kishton sealed the match, and the Blue Jays place in history, with her sixth kill of the night.
Aston and Kishton joined Bliss on the all-tournament team.
"These people mean the world to me," Aston said. "There's just no feeling like being on the court with them. I'm super happy and proud of us."
Kishton and fellow senior Hannah Korslund wrapped up their careers as winners of 103 matches.
"We're the only two seniors in the country that get to go out like this, and that's really special," Korslund said. "I'm really grateful for the program all of the other years, too, not just this year that we got the big trophy. I think it's done a lot for us, and I'm just really grateful for the experience."
PERFECTION pic.twitter.com/YBeoxMldVP— Johns Hopkins Volleyball (@JHUVB) November 24, 2019