Michelle Chan

A full 10 months after claiming its fifth-straight Ivy League title, the Yale volleyball team began its 2015 conference season against Brown on Saturday, picking up right where it left off.

The Bulldogs (6–4, 1–0 Ivy) initially fought neck-and-neck with the Bears (6–6, 0–1) but pulled ahead in the latter half of the match, winning the fourth set 25–22 to claim a 3–1 match victory.

“There is always a change in intensity within the team once conference starts,” setter and outside hitter Kelly Johnson ’16 said. “Everyone knows it is the time to step up, to finally see the results of all of our hard work during preseason and to show the Ivy League everything we’ve got.”

Brown hung with Yale deep into the opening set, at one point taking a 22–21 lead after Yale’s fourth service error of the frame. From there, however, three consecutive kills from Johnson gave the Bulldogs the lead, and a kill from outside hitter Kaitlyn Gibbons ’18 clinched the set for Yale.

Following that key play late in the first set, Johnson continued to excel for the Bulldogs throughout the match. She led the team with 18 kills against only four errors, and also added 11 digs. Johnson was one of four Yale players with 10 or more digs.

In the second set, though, even Johnson’s impressive play could not save Yale.

The Bears jumped out to a 11–7 lead and held off the Bulldogs from there, keeping Yale at least two points behind for the rest of the set. Outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 served two consecutive aces late in the set to bring Yale within a 23–21 margin, but a kill from Bear outside hitter Sabrina Stillwell and an error from Johnson brought the set to a close. It was the first set that Yale has dropped to Brown since September 2012.

In the points that followed, the Bulldogs ensured that the set loss would not be repeated. Brown played tight with Yale to bring the third set to 10–11 in the Elis’ favor at one point, but three Bear errors sandwiched in between two points from captain and outside hitter Karlee Fuller ’16 gave the Bulldogs a commanding lead they did not relinquish.

Yale won the set 25–15, finishing with five straight kills from Johnson, Fuller and middle blocker Maya Midzik ’16. The three seniors combined for 33 kills in the victory.

“We really saw the seniors shine this past weekend,” setter Kelsey Crawford ’18 said. “[Fuller] and [Johnson] showed tremendous leadership and kept putting the ball away.”

In the fourth set, that senior leadership continued with a boost from an unexpected source. Libero Christine Wu ’16, who has seen limited playing time this season, entered the match with Yale trailing early in the first set and contributed a key service ace to sway the momentum in the Bulldogs’ direction.

A few points later, down 9–7, the Bulldogs ripped off nine straight points with middle blocker Jesse Ebner ’16 serving, putting the set out of reach and ultimately clinching the match.

While Yale’s stars such as Johnson and Crawford continued to lead the team in major categories, the surprising contributions from bench players have proved extremely valuable for the Elis.

“Friday really proved the depth and talent on this team,” Johnson said. “We had so many people step up and play awesomely throughout the match. [Fuller] played incredibly, she is such a smart player and gives us so much energy. [Wu] stepped up at a really crucial time, serving aces and playing great defense.”

Yale moves on to host Columbia and Cornell next weekend. The two teams faced off in Ithaca this past weekend, with the Lions prevailing in four sets.

With a big matchup at Harvard looming in two weeks, this weekend’s home games could be easy for the Bulldogs to overlook.

But Yale’s veterans said that they know better than to disregard any opponent.

“As long as we focus and work hard in everything that we do, we can avoid letdowns this year,” Crawford said.

The Elis play the Lions on Friday at 7 p.m., while their matchup against the Big Red will be on Saturday at 5 p.m.