Though taking on a team with a sub-.500 record and another with just two conference wins may not seem like a challenge for the volleyball team this weekend, Penn and Princeton will not be as innocuous as they seem.
Yale (13-2, 4-1 Ivy) hits the road again today after soundly defeating Harvard and Dartmouth in two 3-0 matchups last weekend. The Elis will face the only two Ivy League teams they have not competed against yet when they play Penn (6-10, 3-2) tonight and Princeton (10-5, 2-3) Saturday afternoon. The Bulldogs’ last away weekend yielded mediocre results — Yale dropped its only Ivy League match of the season thus far to Cornell — and the Elis are hoping this trip produces more favorable results. Neither Penn nor Princeton looks formidable on paper, but both are good teams eager for a win.
“I think when you look at just numbers, it’s always deceptive,” outside hitter Shannon Farrell ’07 said. “Some teams aren’t playing as well at some times but that doesn’t mean they won’t show up to beat us.”
The Penn-Princeton road trip is not just another weekend away from campus for the Bulldogs. Last year, it was the turning point of their season, marking Yale’s transformation from an average team into eventual Ivy League champion. Yale swept both Penn and Princeton, kicking off a win streak that would last for ten games and carry them all the way into the second round of the NCAA Tournament. This year, Yale will not be fighting to make it to the top, but rather to stay there.
“This weekend can make or break the season,” setter Jacqueline Becker ’06 said. “Last year we were able to beat both in exciting and close matches, which brought us back into the play for the title, and it is just as important this year as last year. We know that and those teams are hungry to beat us.”
After a disappointing preseason, the Quakers were red-hot early in conference play and jumped to first in the standings with three consecutive wins. This past weekend, however, Penn’s luck turned around. A struggling Columbia team took down the Quakers in a grueling five-set match Friday night, and Cornell sent them home with a 0-3 loss the next day, dropping Penn down to third in the Ivy standings. On Tuesday, Villanova took yet another match off the Quakers, who will enter Friday’s contest on a three-game losing streak.
Sophomore setter Linda Zhang is Penn’s most consistent offensive weapon. She leads the team in hitting percentage, at .301, and in assists, with 8.73 per game, marks good for seventh and sixth in the league, respectively. Senior outside hitter Cara Thomason leads the Quakers on defense, averaging 4.10 digs per game, fourth-best in the conference. Overall, the Quakers are an extremely young team, with just two seniors on the roster and four freshmen who have started in recent games. Penn will depend upon its fast-paced offense, based on good passing and quick middle sets, to put a halt to its losing streak.
Princeton will be a much bigger challenge than its fifth-place league standing suggests. The Tigers are ranked in the top three in the conference in every major statistical category, with the exception of blocking. They have three of the top six players in the hitting percentage standings, including middle blocker Lindsey Ensign, who leads the league with a .434 accuracy.
“Princeton is a very consistent team,” Farrell said. “They don’t really change their offense at all. They will make very few adjustments to change things up, to make their playing different. They’re very scrappy and they’re very good defensively.”
As always, however, the Elis know their success comes down to being able to execute on their side of the net. Hitting aggressively, playing exceptional defense, and serving well have given the Bulldogs success this season, and the Bulldogs know that in order to walk away from this weekend with two wins, they need to focus on the basics.
“We did a lot to prepare, in terms of running through what those teams strengths are,” said libero Anja Perlebach ’07, who will return from an ankle injury this weekend. “But our big focus is on our side of the net and playing our game. We can beat any opponent if we work on what we are doing, rather than what other teams are doing.”