Yale’s saving graces: the women of the hour

For Yale sports fans feeling down after a fourth-place finish in the Ivy League football standings and a 1-9 start to the season for men’s hockey, the John J. Lee Amphitheater will offer some much-needed excitement tonight. Against Albany, the women’s volleyball team will open its first-ever NCAA Tournament, hoping to extend a season that has been marked by an improbable run to an Ivy League championship.

And volleyball isn’t the only women’s squad whose play has elevated it to the national stage this fall. The women’s hockey team defeated its third nationally ranked opponent in three weeks on Monday with a resounding 5-1 win over Providence. Last month, women’s soccer rode an eight-game winning streak into an NCAA at-large bid. And while one national championship team, women’s sailing, just closed out its fall season, another — women’s squash — will begin a defense of its own national title Saturday at home. Add to that list recent Olympians like Sada Jacobson ’06, who earned a bronze medal in Athens, and it is the daughters of Eli who have carried Yale athletics so far this year.

On a campus seldom known for turning out large crowds to games of any kind, these athletes often struggle to capture any student attention. That shouldn’t come as a surprise — clips of volleyball or women’s hockey do not usually show up on SportsCenter, and most Yalies couldn’t tell you the first thing about sailing regattas or squash matches. But even for the casual Yale sports fan, these high-flying Yale women’s squads have made a case for why they are worth watching.

Take volleyball, which seemed out of the running for an Ivy Championship before its season reached its halfway point. The Bulldogs needed to go undefeated in a seven-game stretch against every other Ivy League school to simply capture a share of the conference title — Yale’s first in a quarter-century. Tied with three other teams, second-year coach Erin Appleman’s squad pulled out victories in two playoff nail-biters to earn an NCAA berth.

For women’s hockey, this year’s turnaround has been an even longer time coming. When Hillary Witt was named Yale’s coach in 2002, her team had not defeated an Ivy League opponent in two years. This year, the Bulldogs defeated then-No. 3 Harvard for the first time in two decades, following it up with a road win against then-No. 8 Princeton. With a 7-3 start, Yale has shown that it is now a competitive team in the ECAC, one of the top women’s hockey conferences in the country.

With fresh leadership at the top, these programs have completely reversed their fortunes — a sign of what Yale sports are capable of with the right coaching. Even as other teams have disappointed, these women’s teams have given students a reason to be excited for one reason: They just keep winning.

When the volleyball team takes the floor tonight at the Amphitheater or women’s hockey takes the ice at the Whale this weekend, we hope they are greeted with a home crowd ready to cheer on a winning team. They have certainly earned it.

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