In their first match in Dillon Gymnasium since December 2021, Princeton women’s volleyball (5–2 overall, 0–0 Ivy) kept their hot start to the season, notching a 3–1 win against local opponent Rider (2–8, 0–0 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) on Wednesday.
The match began as largely a one-sided affair. Rider fell behind early in the first set after first-year defensive specialist Ella Bunde delivered a service ace to push the Tigers’ lead to 16–11. From there, Princeton managed to stay ahead by a comfortable margin through the remainder of the period. The first set ended 25–19, with Princeton taking the 1–0 lead in sets.
Coming into the second set, Rider was poised to put up a fight. The teams traded blows back and forth, with neither able to pull away for good more than halfway through the set. The score was tied late in the second set, 16–16.
Rider would eventually find their groove, in large part thanks to the offensive aggressiveness of middle hitter Nicole Wilkinson. Wilkinson sent a beaming kill down Princeton’s side that gave the Broncs the push they needed for their biggest lead of the match at that point, 20–17.
Rider would hold onto this lead for the remainder of the period, ultimately pushing the set tally to 1–1 with their 25–23 set victory over Princeton.
“After the first two sets it was clear that offensively we were very successful. But defense was where we were struggling so that’s what most of the discussion revolved around,” senior hitter Avery Luoma told The Daily Princetonian.
The Tigers wasted no time in getting their retaliation. Luoma managed to get two quick kills early in the third set, giving her team a 6–2 lead in no time. Rider quickly called a timeout to stop the bleeding.
Unfortunately for Rider, the Tigers would not take their foot off of the gas. Their lead would only grow from there. First-year outside hitter Valerie Nutakor made a timely series of plays with back-to-back kills late in the set, extending the Princeton lead to 20–13.
Soon thereafter, Princeton put an end to the third set, winning 25–16. The series sat at 2–1.
With just one more set victory needed to close out the match, the Tigers left no room for a Broncs comeback. Carrying over the momentum from the previous set, Princeton sent a message that they would not be stopped, creating a 6–0 gap to open the fourth frame.
Rider’s efforts would prove insufficient to overcome the strength of Princeton’s offense. Following another powerful Luoma kill, the fourth set culminated in a 25–11 win for the Tigers, ultimately giving them the win in just four sets.
The night was full of impressive stat-lines for the Tigers. Not only did Luoma lead the match with 16 digs, but her 23 kills were good for a new career high. This performance adds to Luoma’s impressive start to the season, which included being named Ivy League Player of the Week on Sept. 5.
“This is a really great group and I’m really excited to see what we can accomplish,” Luoma said. “I think we have the potential to do really well this season and the goal is to win the Ivy League at the end.”
Senior setter Lindsey Kelly also had a career night, leading the match with a career-high 61 assists.
For Rider, it was opposite Morgan Romano making plays by the net, leading her squad with 15 kills. Libero Pamela Loh anchored the defense with a match-high 17 digs.
Meanwhile, Nutakor’s clutch play in the third set is slowly becoming the expectation for the Tigers. Following an impressive performance in the Sacred Heart Tournament, the first-year was awarded Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors this past week. She fueled the Tigers offense with 4.42 kills per set and 27 digs.
Nutakor credits the leadership on the team with helping her find her footing for such big performances.
“The leaders on this team are some of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Nutakor told the ‘Prince.’ “They are so supportive, and they make me feel more confident when I’m on the court.”
The team will go on to play in the local Rutgers volleyball tournament starting on Saturday, Sept. 17, with their first match against Florida International University (1–9, 0–0 Conference USA). After this road trip, it will be time to defend home court once again, where Princeton boasts a 41–5 record in Dillon since 2015. Their next chance to play in front of the home fans will be on Sept. 23 against Ivy League opponent Penn (1–5, 0–0).
Matt Drapkin is an Assistant Sports Editor for the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @mattdrapkin.