After three straight Ivy League titles, the women’s volleyball team stands poised for a four-peat, an achievement not seen in the Ivy League in the past three decades. The secret to the team’s sustained success seems to be years of stellar incoming freshman players, scouted and courted by head coach Erin Appleman, who has managed to put together championship-caliber squads with fewer recruiting slots than Yale’s Ivy League opponents.
“The biggest thing in recruiting here is that Yale’s a great place and sells itself,” Appleman said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to keep getting better players, because they see that Yale offers the best of both worlds. It’s a world-class institution, and a place that offers the possibility of athletic success. You choose Yale because it’s Yale.”
Setter Kelly Johnson ’16 also noted the balance between academics and athletics that drew her toward Yale. But the sophomore emphasized that it was her future teammates that clinched her decision.
“I started talking to Yale my junior year, and I came out visited and just fell in love with the school,” Johnson said. “I think the girls are what really sold me on it. There was a feeling that I couldn’t help but notice that Yale is just the perfect combination of academics and volleyball that I was looking for. The coach, the girls, the program really made it for me.”
Despite Yale’s ability to “sell itself,” Appleman also emphasized the need to focus her player search on certain regions of the country to get the most value out of the recruiting spots the team is allotted. During the tenure of University President Richard Levin, Yale reduced its number of athletic recruits significantly below the number allotted to it by the Ivy League. For the class of 2015, Yale recruited only 177 of a total 230 athletes allowed by the conference, and over the past few years, volleyball has been one of the teams affected by the cuts. This year the Elis brought in four new freshmen, while each other Ivy League team added at least five incoming players.
Appleman also discussed the benefit that winning itself brings to Yale’s recruiting triumphs. The Elis have been to the NCAA tournament each of the last two seasons and three of the past five years. In 2004 and 2008 Yale advanced to the second round of the tournament, and it remains the only Ivy League school to do so.
Last year the Bulldogs added another feat to their resume, as they became only the second Ivy League team to go a perfect 14–0 in conference play.
“We’ve been in the spotlight more often now,” Appleman said. “The success Yale has had has opened the eyes of some athletes to attending a nonscholarship school.”
The team is 6–3 so far this year, with its only losses coming to No. 1 Penn State, No. 7 Stanford and Missouri.
Overall, the Bulldogs are averaging 13.12 kills per set on a .236 hitting percentage as well as 1.53 blocks per set and nearly two service aces per set. In seven matches against nonranked opponents, the team has surrendered only seven sets as it approaches its Ivy League opener against Brown this weekend.
Captain and reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Kendall Polan ’14 said she was excited about the new season getting underway and impressed by the most recent freshman class.
“I think the freshmen get better each year,” she said. “They all have been contributing in one way or another. They’re all very good players. They came to the team ready to play, and they’re already playing at a very high level.”
Outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17 has already made a major impact and is currently third on the team with 74 kills and 2.39 kills per set. Middle blockers Claire Feeley ’17 and Lucy Tashman ’17 and libero Tori Shepherd ’17 round out the freshman class for the Elis.
Both Polan and outside hitter Mollie Rogers ’15 said that the freshmen’s contributions to the team’s dynamic off the court have been as important as their performance on it.
“We have very good chemistry on our team,” Polan said. “Erin has a good idea of who will fit well within the team dynamic. She’s done a great job for the past four years I’ve been here. A lot of these girls are my best friends.”
The Bulldogs embark on their quest for a fourth straight Ivy championship against Brown on Saturday at 5 p.m. in the John J. Lee Amphitheater.