A game out of first place with three weekends remaining to reclaim first place and a sixth straight Ivy League championship, the Yale volleyball team heads to New York this weekend to face off against a pair of teams at the bottom of the conference standings: Cornell and Columbia.
Earlier in the season, the Bulldogs (10–7, 5–3 Ivy) played host to, and defeated, both of this weekend’s opponents. Yale handled Columbia (5–12, 3–5) in four sets and overcame a 2–0 deficit for a five-set victory over Cornell (5–13, 1–7).
In order to duplicate that performance, however, Yale must overcome its road woes — the Elis have lost each of their first three Ivy matches away from the friendly confines of Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
“We need these wins,” middle blocker Jesse Ebner ’16 said. “It’s that simple. We still control our destiny, but every game is do-or-die.”
If it is to leapfrog Harvard and Dartmouth, Yale has little room for error. The Bulldogs will have to win out in order to have complete control over their title hopes — a daunting task for most teams, though not out of the question for a team with such an impressive championship pedigree.
In fact, Yale faced a similar closing stretch after its second loss to Harvard last year, needing to win its final four matches to claim a share of the conference title and force a one-game playoff for the Ivy’s lone NCAA berth. The Bulldogs handled the challenge, dominating all four opponents — including Columbia and Cornell on the road — and dropping just two sets in the process. Yale then defeated Harvard, in Cambridge, to earn the national tournament berth.
Aware of the implications of this weekend’s contests, as well as the team’s losing record on the road, the team’s veterans remain confident.
“I think our team is ready for a win on the road,” captain and outside hitter Karlee Fuller ’16 said. “The girls are pumped and prepared for whatever challenges are presented with playing in another gym, and I think we are looking forward to showing our resilience on someone else’s turf.”
In order to avoid falling to either of this weekend’s struggling foes, the Bulldogs, who have won as many games this season as their two opponents combined, must work to reverse the slow starts that nearly cost them a win in each of their prior meetings. Yale split the first two sets before pulling away against Columbia, and last-place Cornell was able to open up a commanding lead prior to succumbing to the Elis’ deep attack. Setter Kelly Johnson ’16, who won Ivy League Player of the Week following those victories, and outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 played critical roles in each comeback effort.
Middle hitter Meaghan Truman ’18 acknowledged that while Yale has been able to afford slow starts on its home court, it has no such luxury on the road.
“The team is really focusing on starting games off strong and coming out with intensity at the start of the match,” Truman said. “Obviously our home crowd is missed when we are playing on the road and the opponents’ crowds are loud, but our team is always capable of providing our own energy and focusing when facing a tough crowd.”
Even with two wins, Yale will need some help to climb further up the Ivy ladder by the end of the weekend. Harvard and Dartmouth each travel to Princeton and Penn this weekend, and a pair of wins for either or both teams will keep the victors at least a game ahead of the Bulldogs.
By season’s end, though, the Elis will have a chance to decide their fate independent of other results, assuming they can keep pace until that point. Yale plays host to Harvard and Dartmouth during the season’s final weekend, a pair of contests that could singlehandedly decide the Ivy League’s 2015 champion.
Those title hopes remain at the forefront of the Bulldogs’ minds. For now, however, Yale’s players say that their collective focus lies only on the next match on the schedule.
“We don’t like to get caught up in the ‘ifs’ and what could happen in the future, but rather we focus on the game directly ahead of us,” Fuller said. “The goal right now is to beat Cornell.”
Yale faces the Big Red in Ithaca on Friday before heading to Manhattan to play the Lions on Saturday.