As the women’s volleyball team warms up for its season opener Sept. 9, both the squad and Eli fans are recalling the excitement of last year’s tumultuous campaign.
The Bulldogs’ 2004 season was a true Cinderella story — the Elis turned a losing record at mid-season and a mediocre Ivy League standing into their first-ever NCAA tournament bid and first conference crown since 1978.
“After our less-than-stellar first half of the season, we still had hope that we could turn things around,” setter Jacqueline Becker ’06 said. “With momentum going our way, we were able to work our way back up and put ourselves in contending position.”
The Elis hit bottom in late October, after dropping games to Harvard and Dartmouth on the road to put them 3-4 in conference play.
“The Harvard-Dartmouth road trip was a pretty low point of the season,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “That was pretty significant — we were halfway through the Ivy season and had more losses than wins.”
The following weekend, however, the Elis seemed determined to prove they were not out of the running for an Ivy League title. Yale battled its way to five-set victories over both Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania — a two-game stretch that proved to be the turning point of the Elis’ season. For the remainder of the regular season, the Bulldogs went undefeated.
Playing at home Nov. 17, the Elis cemented their grasp on a portion of the Ivy title in a five-set victory over Brown. Yale shared the title with Harvard, Cornell and Princeton.
“Ever since I was a freshman, the class above me said they would win an Ivy title, and I believed them,” middle-blocker Renee Lopes ’06 said. “It may have taken us a while to get the ball rolling, but I knew we could do it.”
Knowing that only one team could take the Ivy League champion’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, the pressure was on in the Ivy playoffs.
Yale faced Harvard in the first round, where the Elis downed the Crimson (20-30, 30-28, 30-20, 28-30, 15-13). In the Bulldogs’ second-round matchup, against Cornell, Yale snuck by the Big Red in yet another five-set match (30-19, 26-30, 30-32, 30-28, 16-14).
With the wins, the Bulldogs were poised to make their first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. And to top it all off, the Elis would be hosting the playoffs — the first-ever Ivy League school to be granted that honor.
Yale took its first round match against Albany in five sets (30-28, 30-21, 31-33, 30-22), earning the recognition of being the only Ivy League team to ever win a NCAA playoff game.
For the Eli’s second-round game against fourth-seeded Minnesota, 1,100 fans packed into the gym. The Gophers were too strong for the Elis, however, and for every offensive surge the Bulldogs mustered, Minnesota countered with an impenetrable defense — the Gophers had 62 digs and 12 blocks during the match. The Eli offense faltered with just a .046 hitting percentage.
Despite their eventual defeat (17-30, 18-30, 19-30), the season’s successes kept the Bulldogs positive.
“Being part of the NCAA tournament was unbelievable,” Becker said. “The school support was incredible. We were able to accomplish things last season that we hadn’t even dreamed of.”
The Elis are hoping the memory of last year’s success and a strong freshman class will help them remain strong competitors for the 2005 Ivy title.
“Compared to where we were last year at this time, I think our team is doing really well,” Lopes said. “Everyone is practicing very hard, and our freshmen add to the competitive spirit in the gym. Our seniors will be missed, but I know that the whole team can step it up this year to fill any holes they left, and add a little bit more.”