PRINCETON, N.J. — The Ivy League championship game ended with one last point by The Big Three of the women’s volleyball team. A perfect dig by Alexis Crusey ’10 led to a perfect set by Ally Mendenhall ’09. The ball then floated for what seemed like a lifetime. And as it slowly came down, its velocity changed drastically after Cat Dailey ’10 went for the kill. The ball crashed down on Princeton’s side of the court, and the Bulldogs jumped straight into the air — as the newly crowned Ivy League Champions.
Boasting an 11-1 Ivy record going into their final two games of the conference season, top-ranked Yale was favored to win the title. On Friday night, it looked as though their road to victory might have come to a dead end during a close five-set thriller against Penn (13-12, 9-4), but the Bulldogs came away with the win. The next day Yale won three close sets, sweeping defending-champions Princeton (17-4, 11-2) on their way to the Bulldogs’ first outright Ivy League Championship since 1978.
Entering Friday’s game against the Quakers, the Elis (19-4, 13-1 Ivy) had won 11 of their last 12 Ivy matches. In a season of almost undefeated conference play, Yale’s only loss was to the Quakers. This time around, the Bulldogs were looking to evening the score.
“Penn is a good team and they caught us off guard last time,” outside hitter Alexis Crusey ’10 said. “But we had something to prove, and we wanted to show that we were the better team.”
Friday’s five sets was only the fourth time this season that the Bulldogs had played a full match. Two of those times were against the Quakers — the first time around, Penn outlasted Yale, but this weekend, it was the Elis who emerged victorious, thanks to their balance on offense and defense.
Three Elis recorded double-doubles in the match. Outside hitters Dailey and Crusey led the way for the Bulldogs on both sides of the net — Dailey posted 22 kills and 25 digs, and Crusey added 16 kills and 20 digs. Captain Mendenhall had 21 digs and 57 assists, a season high for the setter.
In total, four players recorded at least 20 digs in Yale’s defensive effort. In addition to Dailey, Crusey and Mendenhall on defense, libero Kelly Ozurovich ’11 contributed a team-high 25 digs. In total, the Bulldogs recorded 109 digs, compared to 86 posted by the Quakers.
But the Elis’ defense was not only limited to digs. The Bulldogs recorded 15 blocks, 11 of which came from middle blocker Taylor Cramm ’12.
The match was epitomized in the last points of the fifth set. Down 10-12, the Bulldogs rallied to win the next five points, defeating Penn and setting up the Bulldogs to enter the matchup against Princeton with the chance to be the sole Ivy champion.
“After our win over Penn, we were excited to play for the title outright,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “Our game against Princeton couldn’t come soon enough. We knew it would be a great match and we knew we were ready.”
In the opening points of Saturday’s match, the Bulldogs went point-for-point with the Tigers.
Princeton would seem to have had the home court advantage, bringing in a sea of black and orange. But a few points into the game, a wave of Yale blue stormed the gym when that the Bulldog faithful finally arrived. Players said the bus-load of die-hard Yale Volleyball fans brought a burst of energy for the Bulldogs.
“The crowd definitely brought a spark to our team,” Crusey said. “They added so much energy, and we wanted to ride that wave.”
Although the teams traded opening points, keeping the set close, the Tigers eventually jumped out to a 12-8 lead, forcing the Bulldogs to take their first timeout of the set. The break was helpful for the Elis as they tied the game at 14-14, at which point Princeton called a timeout. The Tigers went on to win four straight points after the break, forcing Appleman to take her second timeout.
As the Bulldogs climbed out of their deficit, they narrowed the Tigers’ lead and kept the score close, driving the set into extra points. Tied at 26 apiece, Crusey hit a shot that barely caught the line, giving the Bulldogs their first lead of the game. After a hit by Princeton failed to clear the net, the Elis took the first set, 28-26.
The second set followed the same script and ended with the same result, 28-26. Emotions were tense as pressure on both teams mounted. With every point, frustration at the referees built, which resulted in a yellow card for Crusey and Yale assistant coach Kevin Laseau.
Heading into the intermission, the Bulldogs were ahead two games to none. But they knew the title was not yet secured.
“We knew that Princeton would not let up at all,” Crusey said.
But the Bulldogs could sense victory was close. By the middle of the third set, the Bulldogs had the largest lead of either team in the entire match, up 17-10. But the Tigers slowly crawled back into the match, cutting the Elis’ margin down to three, 18-15. Appleman took a timeout, squelching any momentum Princeton had gained.
After the pause, both teams traded points, and the Bulldogs lead was sustained, giving them the win and the Ivy championship. As the Ivy League champions, the Bulldogs get an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. They are the first team to earn a spot this year. The official bracket will be released Nov. 30.
“It’s great to get this win,” Crusey said. “But it’s even better to share it with such an amazing group of girls.”