Sparked by Stellar Performance by Senior Libero Dames, Princeton Women’s Volleyball Tops Brown, Now 6-1 Ivy
DIGGING IT: Princeton University women’s volleyball player Cameron Dames makes a dig in recent action. Last Saturday, senior libero Dames made a career-high 35 digs to help Princeton defeat Brown 3-1 (25-22, 25-23, 19-25, 25-20). The Tigers, now 14-3 overall and 6-1 Ivy League, play at Penn on October 21. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)
By Justin Feil
Cameron Dames is looking forward to the second half of the Ivy League season after she and the Princeton University women’s volleyball team regained momentum last Saturday.
After falling 3-0 (25-21, 25-12, 25-15) to Yale last Friday night in what Dames called an “implosion,” less than 24 hours later Dames delivered one of the finest performances in her four seasons starting at libero as the Tigers knocked off defending Ivy League champion Brown, 3-1 (25-22, 25-23, 19-25, 25-20), to improve to 14-3 overall, 6-1 in Ivy play and show encouraging resolve.
“I’m just excited to see what this team can do,” said Dames, a 5’9 native of Atlanta, Ga. “I’m excited that we can come back from such a tough Friday game.”
A day later, Dames had a career-high 35 digs to pace a defense that tied their season-high with 83 digs. That helped Princeton win a pair of tight sets, and then after Brown won the third set, the Tigers closed out the Bears 25-20.
“I definitely felt good about the game,” said Dames. “I just felt really confident back there. I knew that I wanted to perform well for my team. I knew if we were going to come out with a win, I needed to show up. I really wanted to bounce back from Friday and show the team I was going to give my all every single point and I think I did that.”
Princeton will try to build on the momentum regained when they start the second time through the Ivy teams when it plays Penn on October 21. Previously, the Tigers beat the Quakers 3-0 (25-21, 25-12, 25-13) on September 23.
“You’re always focused when you’re going into those games playing the top teams,” said Dames. “Coming into the second round, Penn, maybe they don’t have the best record, but they’re taking sets off teams. I don’t think people are mentally wavering at this point. I think we’re going to head in strong. Having Harvard-Dartmouth and Yale-Brown in back-to-back weekends, that’ll be a critical point for us.”
Friday’s loss to Yale felt a little too much like last year when Princeton was cruising along with only a pair of early season losses before dropping four of five games in the midst of the Ivy season. Like last year, the Tigers had rattled off 10 straight wins heading into the weekend road trip to Ivy front-runner Yale and defending champ Brown. But after being swept away from Yale, Princeton re-centered itself.
The Tigers slept in Providence, R.I., and the next day used an exercise on gratitude that Princeton head coach Sabrina King got from former Princeton women’s swimming coach Susan Teeter. King asked her players to talk about what they were grateful for, what they were grateful for within the team, and something they were going to do better that day.
“We went around and everyone said something about how supportive our team is,” said Dames. “It’s really what’s defined us this year is how amazingly supportive each and every one of our teammates is, and especially our bench. The love and support and energy that our bench brings lifts up everyone on that court, and I think that that’s what carried us through that Brown game as well. We fight for each other and we want to play hard.”
In the win over Brown, senior Melina Mahood posted a career-high 18 kills, senior Lindsey Kelly led all players with 51 assists and freshman Lucia Scalamandre had a team-high three blocks. Senior Avery Luoma had nine digs and seven kills. Freshman Valerie Nutakor had 13 kills and a pair of aces and freshman Ella Bunde had 11 digs.
“For them to come back and beat Brown, I was really proud of them,” said Tiger head coach King. “Getting a split for that road trip is pretty good for us. Then we get both at home later in the season, so I feel pretty good about it. Definitely the bounce back is important.”
Princeton, too, had the advantage of a big picture outlook to help. This year is the first with an Ivy League tournament that will feature the top four Ivy finishers in a weekend tournament for the NCAA tournament’s automatic qualifying bid. None of the Tigers know exactly what to expect, but they are thrilled that they can give themselves a chance at a bid.
“It takes a lot of pressure off the regular season,” said Dames. “That Yale loss, OK, you’re going to lose a game. You’re going to lose two games. It’s not the end of the world. Before it kind of was. You could think, if we lose one game and could lose the Ivy League. It’s a mental reframing now. Coming into this season, we were geared up for the regular season, but we also put things in perspective.”
Princeton sits in second place in the league standing as it goes into the second time through the league. The Tigers are one game behind Yale, one game ahead of Brown.
“The whole year our mindset has been growth-mindedness and we’re going to get better every day and we’re not going to peak midseason,” said King. “Now there’s this Ivy League tournament which sort of changes our mentality a little bit in that we didn’t have to be perfect right out of the gate.”
The Tigers definitely weren’t perfect Friday, but looked like a completely different team Saturday at Brown. It wasn’t one play or strategy, it was the way that they responded to the challenges from Brown.
“More than the loss, what was disappointing was just our lack of effort,” said Dames. “Something we wanted to focus on going into the Brown game was renewing our energy, renewing our fight. I think we just rolled over with Yale. We wanted to show that’s not who we are, that’s not how we want to be defined in the Ivy League. We want to win the Ivy League.”
Dames is one of six seniors for the Tigers. They don’t have one of them, outside hitter Elena Montgomery who was a first-team All-Ivy selection last year, due to a knee injury, but they have rallied to the lead the team to a strong start. Rebounding from a disappointing loss was an important test.
“We were a pretty inexperienced team last year,” said Dames. “We only had a couple players who had significant playing time so it was an adjustment coming into tough matches with the stress factor and nerves. The level of play that these freshmen have had, they’re ready to take on these challenges and it really inspires the seniors on the court.”
All three Princeton freshmen have emerged as major contributors. They have come in and done more in their first year than anyone anticipated, and it has helped make up for the loss of Montgomery and pushed the returners and forced everyone to raise their level.
“They’ve really stepped up; coming in freshman year and being starters on the court, it’s super impressive,” said Dames. “They’ve all contributed so much so far. Lucia is one of the best blockers in the Ivy League, Ella really held the fort down with passing and defensively (Saturday) night as well. Val has been a force to be reckoned with at the net. We’re a different team with them. They just make us seniors want to work harder.”
Princeton’s class of six seniors is larger than usual. Dames and Montgomery are part of that class after taking off the 2020 year when COVID-19 canceled their fall season. They have helped to strengthen an already formidable class and took the lead when the Tigers looked to right their ship at Brown.
“Our setter, Lindsey Kelly, she is incredible,” said Dames. “She’s been leading the nation in assists per set. She’s just always a solid presence on the court. And clearly Avery Luoma, Mel, we all knew we had to step up in that game if we were going to be successful. That was something coming into season, knowing we were not going to have Elena, everyone had to be that much better because Elena was a crucial part of our team last year. That was definitely tough to overcome not playing with her. But everyone has done a good job.”
Dames has used her experience to keep the Tigers on track this season. After being the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, she took a leave of absence from school in 2020. In that year, she played some beach volleyball, worked in retail in Cape Cod, and did research for public broadcasting in her hometown, Atlanta. She returned last year to record her 1,000th career dig and be named honorable mention in the Ivies, and this year is hoping to help guide the team to an Ivy title.
“I take on a lot of emotions of the team,” said Dames. “I’m focused a lot on our temperament going into the game and how my words can affect the team. It’s very humbling as a senior. That’s something you don’t realize as an underclassmen how much you say can influence the players on the court. I think I take that to heart so I really try to be positive but bring fiery energy onto the court and really support my teammates because my upperclassmen did that for me when I was a freshman and it made all the difference. But I do think it’s been helpful having these four years. I’ve seen it all before.”
Dames and the Tigers feel they’re back on track after a hiccup in Friday’s loss to Yale. They look forward to that rematch and continuing to gain momentum through the second half of the Ivy season when they hope to claim the regular-season title, host the Ivy tournament and win the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“It was definitely a strong start,” said King. “They’re playing looser. They have more confidence. They’re just able to weather things better this year. It’s been a real joy to see that the work that was put in last year in the offseason has really made some gains.”