It’s tournament time.
After completing just the second-ever 14–0 season in Ivy League volleyball history and clinching a third-straight conference championship, the volleyball team will take on Bowling Green in the first round of the NCAA tournament tomorrow night at Penn State.
The Bulldogs have not played a match since their season finale on Nov. 10, when they beat Dartmouth 3–0. After going home for a portion of Thanksgiving break, the Elis have been practicing since Sunday in preparation for their postseason opener. Team captain Haley Wessels ’13 said that the team is excited to continue making a name for Yale volleyball.
“We definitely want to represent the program as a whole,” Wessels said. “We haven’t won a match in the NCAA tournament since 2008, so just being able to accomplish that would be a really great goal for us.”
Yale (18–5, 14–0 Ivy) will be competing in its fourth NCAA tournament in the last nine seasons after earning the Ivy League’s automatic bid. The Elis won their first-round matches against Albany and Ohio University in 2004 and 2008, respectively, before losing in the second round, and fell to USC, the seventh seed overall, in last year’s tournament.
Their opponent this year, Bowling Green (21–10, 13–3 MAC), won the Mid-American Conference championship and earned its automatic NCAA berth with a 3–2 victory over Northern Illinois on Nov. 18. This year will be the Falcons’ first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1991, when the team fell to Wisconsin 3–0 in the contest’s opening round. Wessels said she thinks that Yale’s experience in last year’s NCAA tournament gives the Bulldogs an advantage.
“I think just having the experience of playing in front of big crowds really helps,” she said. “And for the girls on our team that haven’t had that experience, they won’t be as distracted as they might be.”
This year’s postseason appearance marks the end of a serious turnaround for Bowling Green. From 2009–2011, the Falcons went just 13–35 in MAC play, including an abysmal 2–14 performance in 2010.
A large and talented junior class has fueled Bowling Green’s recent resurgence. The Falcons’ roster consists of seven juniors, six of whom have appeared in over 100 sets this season, and no freshmen. A junior leads the team in every significant statistical category, including kills, assists, blocks, digs and service aces.
Head coach Erin Appleman said that the Falcons are a tough first-round matchup.
“Bowling Green is a very good team from what little we’ve seen of them,” Appleman said. “They’re athletic, strong, physical and they have a lot of experience.”
Leading the Falcons is junior left side hitter Paige Penrod, who finished third in the Mid-American Conference in kills per set with 3.85. Penrod is capable of monster performances and has posted over 25 kills twice this season. Against Indiana on Sept. 1, Penrod hit 26 kills on a .296 hitting percentage to lead the Falcons to a 3–1 win. To go along with a powerful arm, Penrod is a talented server. The Circleville, Ohio native finished second in the conference with .32 service aces per set this season.
As usual, Yale will look to setters Kendall Polan ’14 and Kelly Johnson ’16 to lead the way offensively. Polan, who was named Ivy League Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, finished in the top 10 in the Ivy League in both assists and digs while Johnson, the conference’s Rookie of the Year, finished eighth in kills and ninth in assists.
Together, the two will try to continue the form that helped make Yale one of the top offensive teams in the nation this season. The Bulldogs ended the year ranked second in the country in kills per set and third in assists per set with 14.9 and 13.9, respectively.
But Bowling Green will pose a challenge to Yale’s hitters. The Falcons, led by middle blocker Kaitlyn Skinner’s 1.19 blocks per set, were the third-best defensive team at the net in the MAC this season.
If Yale manages to take down Bowling Green, they will move on to play the winner of another first-round matchup between No. 1 Penn State and Binghamton in the second round. That match would be played on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.