Entering the Ivy League season’s final weekend, the Yale volleyball team needed a pair of wins — and some help from other teams — to keep its hopes at a sixth consecutive Ancient Eight title alive.
While the Bulldogs (14–9, 9–5 Ivy) kept up their end of the bargain with wins over Harvard (14–10, 10–4) and Dartmouth (12–11, 9–5), other results across the Ivy League did not go the Elis’ way. The end result is Yale ending its league season a single game out of first place, sending the Elis home without a conference championship for the first time in half a decade.
“Beating Harvard and Dartmouth this past weekend was an amazing way to end the season,” setter Kelsey Crawford ’18 said. “It proved how good we are and how much we can still grow because everyone had a hand in winning the two matches this weekend.”
Even though Yale was unable to climb its way to the top of the standings, the Bulldogs ended their year on a high note with the weekend sweep, in addition to playing spoiler for other Ivy title contenders. On Friday, Yale’s victory over the Crimson kept Harvard from winning an outright conference championship, and the Saturday win over Dartmouth knocked the Big Green out of the race for the Ancient Eight’s lone NCAA Tournament berth.
Last season, Yale split the Ivy League championship honors with Harvard. In a tiebreaker to decide who would advance to the NCAAs, the Elis swept a three-set match in Cambridge. This year, the Bulldogs will instead watch as Harvard and Princeton face off next weekend in a similar one-game playoff for a spot in the national tournament.
For Yale’s five seniors, this season is a deviation from their first three. The Bulldogs have no postseason to prepare for, with their slate of meaningful games entirely completed. However, for the first time, this crop of players can end their season with a win, as they have been bounced from the NCAA Tournament in each of the past three seasons.
While Yale’s Ivy slate of action has concluded, the team has one non-conference game remaining, a Nov. 24 tilt against Hartford, which should provide head coach Erin Appleman an opportunity to devote more time to some of the team’s underclassmen.
“The underclassmen compose some of the most talented and motivated volleyball players in the league,” captain and outside hitter Karlee Fuller ’16 said. “There’s a lot in store for these girls in the rest of their careers.”
Those underclassmen will have large shoes to fill, as shown by the team’s resolve over the weekend against two teams that each held at least a share of first place during play against Yale.
On Friday night, the Elis played host to Harvard. Yale took the critical matchup in four tight sets, with a number of Bulldogs who are set to return next year providing promising performances that bode well for the program’s future.
In particular, Yale saw standout performances from outside hitters Kelley Wirth ’19 and Brittani Steinberg ’17, who combined for 34 kills and 21 digs in the victory. Wirth provided a service ace to close out the opening set and a kill to end the match in the fourth set, and Steinberg ended the second set with a kill off a Crawford assist.
Crawford, who missed five Ivy games before returning last weekend, continued to provide excellent play, registering a double-double with a team-high 42 assists and 13 digs. Her solid play from the setter position allowed Kelly Johnson ’16 to return to a hitting position, where she notched nine kills including two clutch, consecutive points with the Bulldogs down 24-23 in the first set.
While Friday night’s rivalry win provided a glimpse of what is to come for the team, Saturday allowed for one final moment in the Ivy sun for Yale’s star-laden senior class.
“The weekend was even more special for us seniors because we all had family members there,” libero Christine Wu ’16 said. “We’ve all been playing the sport for so many years, and as much as it is the end of our playing career, it’s the end of an era for our parents, too.”
On Saturday night, the Bulldogs were on their heels for much of the match. Yale won the first set, but quickly dropped the next two, allowing Dartmouth to hit 0.500 and 0.345 in the second and third frames. The Big Green’s Emily Astarita proved a particularly difficult matchup for Yale, recording a match-high 23 kills including 13 in Dartmouth’s second and third set wins.
From there, the Bulldogs rallied back to force a fifth set, scoring the last three points thanks to kills from Wirth and Johnson to break a 22-all deadlock. In the decisive fifth set, all four healthy seniors provided at least one kill as Yale pulled out a 15–13 win.
Playing all weekend with the pressure on their title-seeking opponents rather than themselves, the Bulldogs utilized loose and efficient play en route to victory.
“We put a lot of serving pressure on both teams and played really smart offensively,” Wu said. “We were really gritty and scrappy on defense. In general, we just were able to play relaxed and have fun and work really hard to play clean volleyball.”
Over the five seniors’ four years on campus, the class of 2016 recorded three Ivy League titles and a 48–8 conference record, including a 27–1 mark at Payne Whitney Gymnasium.