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Bearcats roll past John Jay, fall short in CUNYAC Championship

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Outside hitter Sophia Shahipour narrowly connected for a corner kill, co-captain Akilah “Kiki” Meulens frustrated the Bloodhounds with dizzying serves and middle hitter Yijia Cai knocked down two of her eight kills in that dominant stretch. After a long serve by Cai gave the Bloodhounds possession, Bridgette Sarco kickstarted a comeback with back-to-back aces. Stephanie Cornwell set up co-captain Alessandra Chavez for a spike and followed up with her trademark hopstep serve for two points to retake the lead. Soon after, a confusing stoppage of play broke the Bearcats’ rhythm and had them one point away from losing the set. Shahipour kept Baruch alive with an ace, but a long service gave John Jay the set, 25-20.

The Bearcats capitalized on the Bloodhounds’ ball handling errors to begin the second set. Kiki’s service into the net breathed life into John Jay to the tune of five straight points, forcing Baruch to call a timeout. Coach Thomas calmed her players’ nerves and the team responded with an outstanding scoring streak. The adjustment worked as aces flew across the court and Cai broke through Bloodhounds’ defense to put the Bearcats ahead 11-10. Errors mounted for the Bearcats when they were up six points with just one more needed to take the set, but a mishit ball by the Bloodhounds sealed the second frame for the home team.

With the match tied at 1-1, neither side could grab hold of a pivotal third set until Cornwell recovered a vicious kill attempt by Jhoanna Castro. John Jay was caught off guard, but miscommunication between Kiki and Bou cut the deficit to one. It was Chavez who lifted the Bearcats during a turbulent period of the set. She never relented, firing kill after kill over the net. The Bearcats faithfuls engaged in ruthless banter with the road supporters as their confidence began to grow. Kiki ran across the width of the court to save the ball and put the Bearcats one set away from the CUNYAC finals.

The fourth set saw Baruch commit fewer errors, record more kills and more aces than John Jay. Kiki asserted herself as an offensive force from start to finish with assistance from Cornwell setting the ball precisely in her wheelhouse. Leslie Chen hit a pinpoint kill for match point and clinched a spot in the finals. The Bearcats briefly celebrated before heading into the locker room with one goal in mind: beat Hunter.

“All week we’ve been preparing for [Hunter],” said Thomas. During the two-hour break between matches, “The girls like to sit and they like to break down the game. They’re good at breaking down the game. We meet a little bit before we reconvene.”

Baruch was all too familiar with the Hawks, as it was the eighth straight year that the two teams competed for the CUNYAC championship. Hunter denied Baruch glory in 2014 and 2015, but the team was determined to buck the trend.

When the Bearcats took the court, Shahipour hobbled to the bench on crutches after sustaining a leg injury during warmups. Tasked with managing a jarring shake-up of her lineup, Thomas praised freshman Leslie Ariza “who was more of a surprise coming to the team—she is more of a defensive player but she had to step up and play offense too and she did not even have a warm up.” Nevertheless, each set was fiercely contested and highlighted with exceptional plays on both sides on the ball.

Chavez and Kiki roared after each kill to energize the players while Bou commanded the defense. Down 20-22 in the first set, Kiki’s survival instincts activated as she elevated for four kills, converting three of them. The Hawks won the following two points to win the set 25-23.

“We went in and we played so hard for 20-plus points each game. We kind of let up on our serve-receive and that’s what makes a key difference,” explained Thomas. “When you’re doing it for 40 points and then all of a sudden ... you can’t let one mistake get ahead of you. You just got to make sure that you bounce back, turn one bad pass into a good pass.”

When the head official granted Hunter a point after the side judge ruled in favor of Baruch, Baruch’s fans and Thomas herself were infuriated. She was issued a yellow card, but winning the next two points seemed like poetic justice for the home team. Still pumped from this heated exchange, the crowd got to its feet during an excruciating rally and applauded each team for their gritty efforts. Critical errors at the end of the set saw Baruch fall 21-25, down two sets to none.

The Bearcats’ never-say-die attitude fueled their performance in the third set. Just as Hunter neared the finish line, the Bearcats lost focus and committed lazy errors to tie the set 22-22. The final point encapsulated the season—the Bearcats displayed ferocity on offense, perseverance on defense and a commitment to one another. Watching Hunter celebrate on the court for the third year in a row was especially difficult for the three senior captains.

Reflecting on the season and the careers of her captains, Thomas said, “They are best of friends and a very tight-knit team. They do so much together and losing these three [seniors] ... it’s very hard. They have been with me throughout the whole entire time and they work so hard. Every day, they are the ones that are leading everything. It was one of the reasons why I kept Kiki on the floor for the last five points when she’s not even a defensive player—just to have that leadership on the floor.”

The team was presented with a runners-up trophy and medals. In addition, Kiki and Cornwell received CUNYAC All-Tournament honors for their exceptional performance.

Looking ahead to 2017, Ariza, Cai, Chen, Cornwell and Velasco, along with a healthy Shahipour, are poised to form the core of yet another title contender. No one could hope to replicate Bou’s tenacity, Chavez’ will or Kiki’s fire, but the Bearcats will certainly be back with a vengeance.

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