Staring in the face of defeat after dropping the first two sets, the Yale volleyball team clawed back against Cornell, pulling out the win in a thrilling five-set match Saturday evening to remain unbeaten in Ivy League play.
The Elis (8–4, 3–0 Ivy) rode the comeback wave on the hands and forearms of setter Kelly Johnson ’16 and outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19. Johnson had 29 assists and Wirth contributed 16 kills. The game was Yale’s second victory of the weekend after handling Columbia (3–9, 1–2) 3–1 on Friday.
“I think those wins show that we have a lot of resilience,” Brittani Steinberg ’17 said. “We learned that we have to be ready to compete the second we step foot on the court. The Ivy League gets more and more competitive every year … we learned that our talent runs deep, and every member of the team has a specific role and can contribute positively at any moment.”
The five-time defending Ivy League champions needed four sets to drop the Lions, with their only lost set coming in a 28–26 back-and-forth affair in the second game.
Johnson matched a career-high in kills, notching 22, while Wirth contributed 11 kills of her own to go along with 15 digs.
Three of the four sets were closely contested between the two squads. The third set was the only one decided by a margin greater than two points, with the fourth and decisive set ending 25–23 in favor of the Elis.
Yale libero Tori Shepherd ’17 sat out the Columbia match with an undisclosed injury and did not return for Cornell (4–9, 0–3). She declined to comment on the injury, citing a team policy not to discuss injuries outside the team.
The nail-biting intensity of Friday’s game was matched in Saturday’s bout versus the Big Red.
Cornell dominated the first set, starting fast out of the gate and keeping its foot on the gas. The set ended quickly, 25–11 in Cornell’s favor.
Yale jumped out to a 6–2 lead in the second set before Cornell rallied back to tie the set at seven apiece. The two teams traded points until Cornell pushed ahead 12–11. From that point forward, Yale was unable to regain the lead, though Yale managed to stay within striking distance. Ultimately, Cornell kept its opponent at bay taking the second set by a score of 25–19.
Johnson was disappointed with the focus and composure of her team heading into the game, following the four-set match against Columbia.
“I think we just weren’t focused enough and we made way too many errors,” Johnson said. “We lacked the composure that we needed to really play solid volleyball.”
After the second set, Yale made a few substitutions. They also altered their lineup halfway through the third set, moving Johnson to a position to set as opposed to kill. In conjunction, the changes altered the course of the game, setting Yale up for the five-set comeback victory.
“We were able to get some people in who stepped up and decided to do what [the starters] should have done,” said head coach Erin Appleman. “Lucy Tashman ’17 did a great job, Brittani Steinberg did a great job, Kelly Johnson was our top hitter yesterday, and today she was setting for us.”
In the third set, Wirth began to make her mark, killing several points with strong spikes. Yale built and held onto a significant and steady lead, capturing the set by a score of 25–15.
Yale translated the momentum gathered during the third set into a strong fourth set. In the fourth set, Cornell’s coach Trudy Vande Berg called a timeout with her team trailing 7–3, but Yale continued the onslaught winning the next three points to push the score to 10–3. After building up a substantial 2–0 set advantage, Cornell dropped the set 25–18 and began to feel the game slipping out of its grasp, with a sudden-death fifth set about to begin.
“Unfortunately the momentum did shift in Yale’s favor,” admitted Cornell’s libero and defensive specialist Chelsea Sincox. “They started to push back and we couldn’t quite respond.”
Both Appleman and Johnson pointed to the freshman Wirth as being one of the focal points of the turnaround in the game.
Despite Wirth’s first-year status, teammates and coaching staff said they are confident in her ability to handle the pressure of a large role on the team.
“It’s really reassuring coming in as a freshman and having these girls recognize that I’m a freshman, but still hold me to a really high standard,” Wirth said. “Out on the court, I don’t feel like a freshman.”
Yale jumped out to an 8–4 lead in the decisive fifth set, but saw several service errors shrink the lead to 11–10. After that, Yale conceded just one more point to Cornell, winning the first-to-15 game by a final score of 15–11.
The Bulldogs will seek to continue their undefeated streak when they travel to Providence on Friday to take on Brown, followed by a trip to Cambridge on Saturday to take on Harvard.