As the Yale fans began to jangle their keys tonight in the closing points of the volleyball team’s match against Albany, they knew that they were witnessing something extraordinary. The Eli faithful were signaling the Great Danes to warm up their bus to head back to Albany; the Bulldogs were about to become the first team in Ivy League history to advance beyond the first round of play in the NCAA tournament.
Yale defeated Albany 3-1 (30-28, 30-21, 31-33, 30-22) in both teams’ first-ever appearance in the competition. The Elis will face No. 4 Minnesota tonight at 7 p.m. to see who will advance to the regional finals. Minnesota beat Long Island 3-0 (30-19, 30-12, 30-27) last night to earn its place in tonight’s game.
Head coach Erin Appleman said the win had ramifications well beyond the team or the University itself.
“This win is not just about an individual player, a team, or even Yale for that matter,” Appleman said. “This is about the Ivy League. It is a huge step for the conference, and it has really put us on the map as a growing pool of talent in the volleyball community.”
In front of a record crowd of 916 screaming Yale fans, the Elis and the Great Danes put on an offensive and defensive spectacle for their bystanders. After going back and forth in a tight first game, outside hitter Kali Nelson ’08 brought the Bulldogs to game point. After turning the ball over to the Great Danes’ number one server, Eileen Rodriguez, setter Jacqueline Becker ’06 and middle blocker Renee Lopes ’06 combined for block assists on an Albany attack to seal Yale’s early lead.
Becker said that some key Eli adjustments in the first game against Rodriguez’ serves helped bring success for the rest of the match.
“Rodriguez was the best server I have ever seen,” Becker said. “She served some tough balls against us, but our passing — particularly that of Shannon [Farrell ’07] and Anja [Perlebach ’07] — really stepped up and adjusted to overcome that particular threat.”
Following a much less-contested second game, Albany forced a fourth game by regaining strength in the third game behind the strong play of Shelby Goldman and Ashley Hunter, who combined for 34 kills on the night.
The Great Danes at one point led Yale 21-16 in the third game, but the Elis regained momentum to tie the score at 31-31 before eventually losing out to the Albany offense.
Yale was able to rebound quickly, and they broke out to a decisive 5-0 lead in the fourth game. Farrell finally slammed the door shut on Albany on Becker’s 50th assist of the evening.
“Even though we lost the third game, we carried over a lot of the momentum we gained toward the end of it into the fourth game,” Farrell said. “I think that really helped us come out to a strong start and take control to win.”
The Eli defense stood out throughout the entirety of the match. Perlebach recorded 26 digs, while outside hitter Jana Freeman ’05, the team’s captain, notched 10 digs. Farrell also contributed 14 digs to go along with a team best 18 kills.
While many Bulldogs contributed to the defensive success last night, Appleman credited Perlebach.
“Defensively, we just wanted Anja to dig every ball,” Appleman said. “She has established herself this season as one of the best liberos around, and we try to funnel the ball to her as much as possible. She responded very well to this strategy tonight.”
The match against Minnesota will be one of the most challenging yet for the Elis. The Gophers, who demolished Long Island yesterday, have a barrage of heavy hitters in their offense. Outside hitters Trisha Bratford and Erin Martin lead Minnesota with 3.74 and 5.01 kills per game, respectively, and last night Martin led the Gophers with 12 kills.
Defensively, Minnesota also will be a force to be reckoned with, as libero Paula Gentil has already racked up 776 digs this season. Minnesota head coach Mike Herbert, who celebrated his 800th win in last night’s victory, said before Yale’s victory that he had not thought much about his possible opponent in the second round.
“We really haven’t looked much past the match tonight,” Herbert said. “We have practice, then a pre-game meal and then we’ll have a video session on the winner of Yale-Albany. Then we’ll get ready for another one.”
Appleman said that while the competition tonight will be stout, Yale will try to continue to play the same volleyball they have been playing for the last seven weeks.
“Our game plan tomorrow is to serve tough, pass accurately and control our ball handling,” Appleman said. “I say those things to our players everyday, and when you get to the tough games, you find that it really comes down to the basics. So that will be our focus.”
Despite the outcome of tonight’s game, Perlebach said last night’s victory was a sweet enough win in itself.
“The other teams probably came here tonight wondering why they were playing at Yale,” Perlebach. “They might have even thought we did not deserve to be hosting or even in the tournament for that matter. I think we made a name for ourselves by winning last night.”