For Yale volleyball, the past three weekends of preseason play have been a test of adversity and an opportunity to build chemistry. Starting tonight, though, the stakes become higher for the Bulldogs.
Yale (5–4, 0–0 Ivy) hosts Brown (6–5, 0–0) tonight to begin its quest for a sixth consecutive Ivy championship. Just as in the past few seasons, every team in the Ancient Eight will circle the Yale game on their schedule, and those teams may be better prepared to take down the Bulldogs than ever before.
“The entire Ivy League has gotten better,” middle blocker Jesse Ebner ’16 said. “And I can honestly say that each of the seven other teams is a strong competitor and a real threat.”
Nonetheless, the Bulldogs feel confident and prepared for their 14-game marathon through the conference. Tonight’s game against Brown begins an important early stretch for the Bulldogs; with five of their first seven games at home, getting off to a winning start is especially vital.
The Bears come into tonight’s game riding a three-game winning streak, having won last weekend’s CCSU Invitational by defeating Holy Cross, Central Connecticut State and Hartford, dropping only one set across the three games.
Last fall, Yale beat Brown 3–0 in both of their clashes. In their game in Providence, Yale dominated the first set before winning tight second and third sets. A month later, in New Haven, the Bulldogs won all three sets handily, cruising in front of an enthusiastic home crowd.
Despite those results, nothing is guaranteed for Yale. Both teams look very different from last year: 2014 Bulldog captain Mollie Rogers ’15, who dominated against Brown, has now graduated, and both the Elis and Bears have brought in a number of talented freshmen.
Brown is led in kills by freshman outside hitter Sabrina Stillwell, who has already garnered two Ivy Rookie of the Week awards and an Ivy League Honor Roll selection for her accomplishments on the court. Stillwell ranks fourth in the Ivy League with 3.32 kills per set and eighth in the conference in hitting percentage.
Stillwell is joined on both leaderboards by junior middle blocker Payton Smith, who finished third in the Ivy League in hitting percentage last season and looks to compete for an All-Ivy spot this year. In order to defeat the Bears, Yale must try to neutralize these two primary threats.
“They have a lot of offensive threats and some good freshmen,” Ebner said.
Smith was especially effective a year ago against the Elis, with 15 total kills in those two games, the most by any Bear.
Despite the talent facing them on the other side of the net, the Bulldogs are well-equipped to shut down Brown’s offense and disrupt their rhythm. Once Yale can establish a solid defensive effort, more opportunities to take offensive chances open up.
“I think this past weekend showed the strength of our defense,” captain and outside hitter Karlee Fuller ’16 said. “This is such a key part of the game, and to have it well-developed early on in the season is great because it allows us run an aggressive offense.”
Whether or not these Bears present more of a challenge than last season’s edition did, the Yale veterans understand that they must bring their all for every single Ivy matchup.
In a league where the best two or three teams tend to dominate, a single misstep against a lesser opponent could cost the Bulldogs in their quest for an NCAA berth.
“Conference games have more worth because they count toward our Ivy record and our chances of obtaining another title,” Fuller said. “This adds a bit of pressure to each match that preseason doesn’t necessarily have, but … we often see it as a driving force.”
Tonight, Yale takes its first steps toward that goal. The Bulldogs play two more games at home next week before the key Dartmouth-Harvard road trip that will have major title implications.
Yale hosts Brown at 7 p.m. tonight in the John J. Lee Amphitheater.