Winning a championship has never been an easy task, let alone winning two back-to-back. But to win six titles in a row, even the best programs need some assistance — this weekend, the Yale volleyball team must sweep the two best teams in the Ivy League while receiving help from some unlikely sources.
The Bulldogs (12–9, 7–5 Ivy) host first-place Harvard (13–9, 9–3) and second-place Dartmouth (11–10, 8–4) in a pair of must-win contests. Yale, two matches behind the Crimson, has to beat both teams to have a shot at a share of the Ancient Eight crown. In order for the five-time defending Ivy champions to move into a share of first place, Harvard must also lose its other match of the weekend against Brown, and Princeton must lose to either Columbia or Cornell in its pair of weekend games.
Although such a slate of results would seem nearly impossible in most seasons, members of the Bulldogs believe that the increased parity and skill level across the Ivy League makes every match less predictable and more exciting than ever before.
“This season proved that the league is constantly getting better and everyone is adjusting to the new level of play,” captain and outside hitter Karlee Fuller ’16 said. “Everyone is good and poses a threat.”
Fuller’s statement can be backed up as, looking back at the year thus far, a number of surprising results have already occurred. Harvard and Princeton have each dropped matches to teams in the bottom half of the Ivy League standings — the Crimson lost to Columbia in four sets while the Tigers fell 3–1 against fifth-place Penn.
While the Elis’ destiny is no longer under their control, the Bulldogs claim their only concern this weekend is taking care of business in their own two games.
“We need to perform our best each set and each point in order to get some wins this weekend,” middle blocker Jesse Ebner ’16 said. “It’s all about effort, grit and smart play.”
In Yale’s favor is the fact that the team has played excellent volleyball at home so far this season. In the Elis’ road matches against this weekend’s opponents, Yale lost in four sets at Dartmouth and was swept at Harvard. In each of the two matches, the Bulldogs dropped the first two frames in close fashion before succumbing by lopsided margins in the final set.
Harvard will be led by setter Corinne Bain — the two-time unanimous All-Ivy first teamer leads the team in kills and assists, and is second in digs — while Dartmouth is headed by Emily Astarita, an outside hitter who leads the Ivy League in kills.
But neither standout performer has amassed the sort of championship experience that Yale’s senior class has in its time in New Haven. For the Bulldogs’ five talented seniors, these two matches mark the final conference contests of their careers. While this season may not end with the lifting of a championship trophy as have the past three, a match against the archrival Crimson nonetheless provides a dramatic final stage for Yale’s crop of veterans.
“There’s definitely added emotion,” Ebner said. “Standings and records do not matter when we play Harvard. We will always be amped for this match, and we’re chomping at the bit to compete.”
Whether the Bulldogs win both matches this weekend, these matches provide an opportunity to not only offer their seniors a positive farewell but also additional glimpses into the future for Yale’s younger members.
As the team’s injury troubles this season, such as the loss of two-year starter and libero Tori Shepherd ’17, have hurt its chances at extending its dominant title run, they have also tested the team’s depth and provided some valuable playing time for others on the roster.
“Every season comes with challenges,” setter and three-time All-Ivy first-teamer Kelly Johnson ’16 said. “We had injuries this year that set us back and took out some key players. But even that led to numerous people stepping up and playing great at different times throughout the season.”
For now, though, the Bulldogs remain focused on the task at hand and on keeping their slight title hopes alive.
The action from Payne Whitney Gymnasium against the Crimson will begin at 7 p.m. Friday night. Saturday’s affair against the Big Green, the final home contest of the season, will also include a pregame ceremony honoring the team’s five seniors — Ebner, Johnson, Fuller, middle blocker Maya Midzik ’16 and libero Christine Wu ’16.