After the first half of Ivy League competition, the volleyball team has emerged as one of the most competitive teams in the conference, leading the Ancient Eight in overall win percentage and settling into second place in the league standings.

This weekend, however, Ivy League teams start their second round of play, and the other schools are eager to knock Yale and first-place Cornell out of the top spots. Coming off a weekend sweep of Penn and Princeton, the Elis are at the top of their game and looking to keep their momentum going.

“I think the highlight of the first half of the season was this past weekend,” outside hitter Shannon Farrell ’07 said. “It really felt like things are coming together and we were all working hard together.”

The Elis (14-2, 5-1 Ivy) may not have obvious areas that need improvement, but continued success at their strengths, such as setting, and a little tweaking of some problem areas, such as blocking, should guide the Bulldogs through the second half of conference play. If the Elis can maintain their high level of competitiveness, a repeat Ivy League crown and NCAA Tournament appearance will be within their grasp.

Much of the Elis’ success this season, as in past years, has come from their defense. Led by libero Anja Perlebach ’07, whose average digs per game (5.13) ranks second in the Ivy League, the Bulldogs have held their opponents to an average hitting percentage of .130, the lowest among all conference teams. Perlebach returned to the court for last weekend’s sweeps of Penn and Princeton after suffering an ankle injury earlier in the season. During her time on the sidelines, defensive specialists Maribeth Martens ’08 and Ally Mendenhall ’09 proved the depth of the Eli back row, allowing Harvard and Dartmouth hitting percentages of just .021 and .072, respectively.

“I think we’re progressing very well,” Yale head coach Erin Appleman said. “I would like to be a better blocking team. Defensively, we’re clicking, and we’re comfortable with who is next to us on the court.”

Middle blocker Renee Lopes ’06 has teamed up with middle hitter Kristen Wilk ’09 this year to help make the center of the court a strength for the Elis. Though the two have been dependable scorers for the Bulldogs since the beginning of the season, they typically took a back seat to outside hitters Shannon Farrell ’07 and Nicole Perkins ’08 in terms of racking up points. While Farrell and Perkins rested atop the team’s kills statistics, Wilk and Lopes stepped up to lead the team in blocking, with 1.04 and 0.85 per game, respectively.

This past weekend against Penn and Princeton, however, the Eli middles cemented their roles as offensive weapons as well. Against Penn on October 21, Wilk hit with a .643 percentage and ended up with ten kills. Lopes was nearly as accurate, tallying a .611 hitting percentage en route to knocking down 13 kills.

“We couldn’t have been more pleased with our middles this past weekend,” Appleman said. “One of the reasons they were so good was that [setter] Jackie [Becker ’06] did a great job setting them and our transition was great.”

Lopes’ and Wilk’s recent successes are not just reflective of strong individual talent but indicative of an improved team performance overall. Enabling middles to get hits is one of the trickier things a team can do; it involves extremely accurate passing and good, quick setting to place the ball well enough to hit around the opposing team’s blockers.

Becker’s setting ability paces Lopes and Wilk in the middle, as well as Farrell on the outside. Arguably the best setter in the conference, Becker leads the league with 12.92 assists per game, good for 26th in the nation in that category. Farrell is third in the Ivy League with 4.13 kills per game, but her presence on the team is more valuable than statistics can denote. “Awesome” is the first description that came to Lopes’s mind regarding the versatile player, whose 3.80 digs per game are as critical to the team as her scoring ability.

One of the Elis’ greatest strengths this season is the seniors’ leadership on the court. Four years of practice together have made Becker and Lopes a nearly flawless team. At no time during the season was their chemistry more evident than against Cornell on Oct. 8, the Bulldogs’ only conference loss so far this season. While the team as a whole struggled to get to the ball on defense and get over the net for blocks, Becker and Lopes played their best games of the season. Becker recorded a season-high 63 assists and added nine digs and Lopes tallied 19 kills, four digs and seven blocks in the Elis’ 1-3 loss.

“I am really happy with the team chemistry,” Lopes said. “I think we have come together in the past week or so; it’s been a pretty recent development. The second part of the season is constantly about having the most competitive practices and developing a team chemistry, because that’s ultimately what’s going to win the Ivy League.”

Though it has been a rare occurrence, when the team has struggled this season, their troubles can be mostly attributed to a breakdown in communication or a lack of mental focus. Against Cornell, the Bulldogs jumped ahead to leads as big as five or six points, only to let the Big Red come back off of Eli attack errors or missed digs. That same weekend, against Columbia, the Elis suffered from communication problems — two players would look at each other instead of going for the ball, or someone would take a bad hit rather than leaving the ball for the better-positioned player.

Team blocking, though much improved from last season, has also been a thorn in the Elis’ side, and it will cause struggles against teams with strong hitters like Cornell’s Elizabeth Bishop and Princeton’s Parker Henritze. In their first matchup with the Big Red, the Elis only managed 22 blocks, compared to Cornell’s 31, which allowed Bishop 21 kills.

Last year’s post-season success — including winning the Ivy League playoff and their first-round NCAA Tournament game against Albany — proved that the Bulldogs can be competitive against top teams. Even against then-No. 4 Minnesota, the Elis did not back down, and they are still confident they can compete at that level. Citing better athleticism and stronger fundamentals as the advantages nationally-ranked teams have over Ivy League opponents, Farrell said Yale has the capacity to play with teams like Minnesota this year.

“The girls are bigger, they jump higher, and they hit harder,” Farrell said. “But by no means does that mean we can’t play with them. Playing how we’re playing, I think we’d have the chance to beat a lot of teams outside the Ivy League, because we’re playing really defensively and offensively soundly.”