After a quiet start to her Yale volleyball career, outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 has stepped up her game in concurrence with the pressure-packed Ivy League schedule.
Wirth, who averaged less than seven kills per game in the nonconference season, has recorded 38 kills in the team’s three Ivy contests, including a career-high 16 in the Bulldogs’ five-set comeback win against Cornell on Saturday.
“[Wirth] has been awesome so far and I know she is only going to get better,” setter Kelly Johnson ’16, Ivy League Player of the Week, said. “She is solid in all aspects of her game and is a huge threat on the outside.”
In the match against the Big Red, Yale fell behind two sets to zero in atypical fashion for the five-time defending Ivy League champions, losing the first set 25–11 and the following set 25–19. Wirth recorded only one kill in each of those two frames, but when head coach Erin Appleman adjusted Yale’s formation during the third set, the freshman took control.
In Yale’s third-set victory, Wirth had three kills, and she added five more in the 25–18 fourth-set triumph that evened the match and sent the Bulldogs and the Big Red to a final frame.
In the fifth set, Wirth recorded an impressive six kills as Johnson assisted on each of the points. With Yale ahead 14–11 and looking to clinch the team’s eighth consecutive Ivy victory dating back to last season, the Johnson-Wirth combo produced one final kill and moved the Bulldogs’ 2015 conference record to a perfect 3–0.
“[Wirth] really heated up in the last three games against Cornell,” captain and outside hitter Karlee Fuller ’16 said. “It was great that she rose to the challenge of being down two games and was scoring crucial points. She became a huge threat at the net.”
The freshman’s poise in the pressure-packed match was a welcome sign as Yale seeks yet another Ivy League crown.
Wirth was especially cognizant of the importance of the team’s recent stretch of dominance — a stretch Wirth hopes to help extend.
“I’m not only playing for the seniors or the juniors or myself, I’m playing for the girls that won the Ivy League championships five years ago,” Wirth said. “They want to keep that legacy running and for us to keep going and win six, seven, eight, nine championships in a row.”
As a freshman, Wirth credits the team’s upperclassmen for being welcoming and taking her under their collective wing as a new member of a veteran-laden squad.
For the Moraga, California native, receiving mentorship from the team’s wealth of experienced players, including the three-time first-team All-Ivy selection Johnson, has been key to her development as a player and as a teammate.
“Kelly Johnson is a big role model for me,” Wirth said. “She embodies a leader on the court physically and emotionally.”
Wirth emphasized the strong social and emotional bonds that the team has formed on and off the court, calling this year’s Bulldogs the most cohesive group of girls she has ever played with.
While Wirth’s transition has seemed smooth and natural, being a Yale volleyball player was just a dream a couple short years ago. She reached out to Appleman early in the recruiting process and made it known that Yale was her top choice. Hailing from the Bay Area, Wirth had no hesitations in making the cross-country trip to continue her volleyball career.
Although Appleman kept an attentive eye on Wirth during her high school years, the 12th-year head coach acknowledges that Wirth’s excellent performance this early in her freshman season has been a vital, and perhaps unexpected, addition to the Bulldogs’ lineup.
“She’s gained more comfort in our system which is showing in her play,” Appleman said. “I think she’s always been good, she’s just getting more comfortable playing Yale volleyball and playing with these players.”
The surprise emergence of Wirth and libero Kate Swanson ’19, paired with the return from injury of outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17 and the stellar play of Yale’s returning veterans has made for a remarkably deep and flexible Bulldog roster.
That depth has been a blessing for the Elis’ ability to adjust to and rebound from adversity. As demonstrated in the 2–0 hole against Cornell, lineup changes that display the versatility of players ,such as Johnson’s move from hitter to setter against the Big Red, grants Yale a bevy of options.
“We can put any lineup out there and we can win, our team is so deep,” Wirth said. “I still don’t know what to expect because our lineup is ever-changing, but we can rotate anyone in and be successful.”
No matter what lineup Appleman sends out onto the hardcourt, Wirth figures to play a major role moving forward. And as she continues to improve over the next three-and-a-half seasons, Wirth’s teammates believe her future potential is limitless.
“[Wirth] has been awesome so far and I know she is only going to get better,” Johnson said. “She [has] played with the composure and strength that is rarely seen in a freshman.”
Wirth and the Bulldogs depart from New Haven for their first Ivy road trip of the season when they visit Dartmouth on Friday before traveling to Harvard on Saturday.