Heading into the season’s penultimate weekend, the Yale volleyball team travels south to Princeton and Penn, looking to snag two wins and remain in contention for a sixth consecutive Ivy title.
Three weeks ago, the Bulldogs (11–8, 6–4 Ivy) dominated the Tigers (11–8, 6–4) and Quakers (10–12, 4–6) in New Haven, sweeping Princeton and defeating Penn by a score of 3–1. Over the past two weeks, however, both opponents have produced impressive results and will present difficult tests for Yale in a hostile road environment.
“As the season progresses, every team gets better,” setter Kelly Johnson ’16 said. “We have to come out with the same intensity and focus we had the first time we played them, and we will be successful.”
Princeton has played particularly well during its three-game winning streak since losing to the Elis. The Tigers traveled to Philadelphia and beat Penn in four sets before sweeping both Harvard and Dartmouth, two of the Ivy League’s top teams.
As a result of those victories, Princeton moved to second place in the conference, tied with the Bulldogs and the Big Green. A schematic change to the team’s formation has had a significant impact in transforming Princeton into a championship contender.
“They’ve switched their offensive system around, and they’ve gained a lot of confidence,” middle blocker Jesse Ebner ’16 said. “They’re playing consistently well, and they’re fired up. We have to counter that and do the same. At this point in the season, it’s all about which team wants it more.”
In order to take down the Tigers, Yale must neutralize their opponent’s main offensive threats. Outside hitter Cara Mattaliano, who was voted Ivy League Co-Player of the Week, recorded 30 kills in last weekend’s pair of three-set wins. In her last meeting with the Bulldogs, she notched eight kills and 12 digs. Freshman setter Claire Nassbaum has also emerged as a star for Princeton, totaling a whopping 77 assists this past weekend and helping the Tigers overwhelm both opponents en route to receiving the Ivy League Rookie of the Week award.
Princeton is not the only formidable opponent the Bulldogs will face this weekend. Although Penn sits in sixth place in the conference standings, just three games separate the Quakers from the first-place Crimson as a result of the overall parity of the league. Additionally, Penn enters the weekend on an upswing, having dismantled second-place Dartmouth in straight sets at home.
The Elis made fairly quick work of the Quakers in their first matchup, pulling out to a 2–0 lead before dropping a frame and closing Penn out in a tight fourth set. Yale will need to contend with Penn’s star duo of setter Ronnie Bither and outside hitter Alexis Genske.
Bither was awarded a spot on this week’s Ivy League Honor Roll after recording 26 digs and 61 assists over the weekend, and she had a match-high 21 digs and 36 assists in October’s loss to Yale. Genske also caused the Bulldogs problems, putting up a double-double with 14 kills and 13 digs in the four-set match.
To defeat both Princeton and Penn, the Bulldogs will rely on their depth. Yale had three players, led by a pair of freshmen, named to the Ivy League Honor Roll — libero Kate Swanson ’19, outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 and Ebner.
“Our team is incredibly deep and talented,” captain and outside hitter Karlee Fuller ’16 said. “Everyone is fired up for this weekend and ready to step up to the plate. No matter what six girls are on the court, it’s a team effort — everyone has a role and is involved in every point.”
If Yale can get past these two teams, the Bulldogs will control its own destiny in their quest for another Ivy League championship.
The Elis are one of five teams still on the hunt for the title and remain one game behind the conference-leading Crimson. In the final weekend of the season, Yale will play host to Harvard and Dartmouth, with the opportunity to lock down at least a share of the conference title.
“It will be a great opportunity to return home with a great crowd for the Harvard-Dartmouth weekend, but we need to make it through Penn-Princeton for that weekend to mean anything,” Ebner said.
Yale travels to Princeton for a 7 p.m. start Friday night before facing Penn at 5 p.m. on Saturday.