Courtesy of Yale Athletics

The Yale volleyball team won five consecutive Ivy championships between 2010 and 2014, before finishing second in the conference last season. After this past weekend, the Bulldogs appear poised for a return to the top of the Ancient Eight.

Yale is off to its best start since 2010 following three victories at the Yale Invitational. The Bulldogs cruised through their first two matches of the season, beating both Albany and Iona 3–0. Saturday night’s game against Rutgers proved more challenging, as the Scarlet Knights rallied back after being down two sets before ultimately falling in the fifth.

Several record performances propelled Yale (3–0, 0–0 Ivy) this weekend as outside hitters Brittani Steinberg ’17, Kaitlyn Gibbons ’18 and Kelley Wirth ’19 started their seasons with career-best efforts and received All-Tournament honors despite captain and libero Tori Shepherd ’17 being sidelined with her left arm in a sling.

“I think we’re playing on a really good level right now,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “We’re only two weeks in and we have a lot of work to do but I like the intensity of the players. I think there have been some really good performances by a couple of people.”

While Yale swept its first match of the tournament 25–19, 25–20 and 28–26 against Albany (2–4, 0–0 America East), the Friday-night contest was far from smooth sailing. The Bulldogs trailed in each set to the Great Danes and needed a 6–2 run to close out the match after trailing 24–22 at one point in the third set.

Defense carried Yale against Albany. The Bulldogs combined for 82 digs on Friday, their most in a three-set match since 2011 when they recorded 86 against Penn. Libero Kate Swanson ’19 led the way with 23 digs with Steinberg right behind her at 22, a career high for the senior outside hitter more well-known for her offense than her defense.

“I’m really excited,” Steinberg said. “We’ve been working really hard all preseason and we get super competitive with each other in practice which is super great but it’s nice to always play against other people and I think we’ve started out pretty well.”

Steinberg also finished second on the team with 15 kills, four behind Gibbons, whose 19 kills were also a career high, a remarkable accomplishment in a three-set match.

Despite coming off of short rest with the late game on Friday night, the Bulldogs made quick work of their opponent on Saturday morning, defeating Iona (0–7, 0–0 MAAC) in just 61 minutes from start to finish. Setter Kelsey Crawford ’18 started the game off right with an ace for the first point of the match and Yale never looked back. The Bulldogs went on to win the first set 25–14.

Iona did not fare any better in the second set as Yale recorded five aces en route to a 25–11 win.

The Bulldogs showed no signs of fatigue as they closed out the match with a 25–16 win in the final set. Wirth, who led all players with 13 kills, noted that volleyball players who grow up playing in club tournaments are used to playing as many as six games in 24 hours, though college games are more challenging because they are often much longer.

“It’s three-out-of-five matches so when they go to four or five games it’s definitely hard for us,” Wirth said.

The Bulldogs’ offseason conditioning was tested in their third match of the weekend, which went to five sets. Yale dominated the first set against Rutgers (4–3, 0–0 Big Ten) 25–13, but struggled early in the second. With the score tied at seven, setter Fanny Arnautou ’20 set up Wirth for a big slam. Instead of spiking the ball as she typically does, Wirth opted to finesse it over the Scarlet Knight blockers and the ball landed in a gap between defenders. From the sideline, Appleman immediately pointed to her own head and smiled, displaying her approval in the growth of the sophomore, who is using her smarts as much as her power in her second season.

Following the pivotal point, the Bulldogs won the next three points and took the set 25–21.

Facing a 2–0 hole, Rutgers responded well and won the next two sets 25–22 and 25–17 to tie up the match. Yale committed a combined 14 errors in the third and fourth sets as Rutgers improved its defense of the Elis’ power.

The Scarlet Knights jumped out to a 5–3 lead in the decisive fifth set, which was played to 15 points, but Wirth stepped up and recorded her 23rd kill of the game to start a three-point run for Yale.

“In practice we work on being down and coming back so obviously it was the first game situation [like that] but we’ve been there,” Wirth said. “We knew how to handle it.”

Yale extended its lead to 12–8, forcing Rutgers to call its final timeout in a last-ditch attempt to turn the tide of the match. However, Wirth sent another winner across the net immediately after the timeout. Wirth finished the match with a career-best 24 kills and was named the tournament’s MVP.

“I owe it all to the defense, passing and setting,” Wirth said. “I can’t do it without everyone else so I think it was a team career high.”

After two more Rutgers points, Gibbons notched her 10th kill of the game and Swanson ended the match with an ace.

Swanson finished the tournament with 45 digs while filling in for the captain Sheppard, who encouraged her teammates from the bench. Appleman expects Shepherd to be back “soon” but says Swanson has done a great job, referring to her play last year when Shepherd was also injured and missed the final 20 games of the season. Swanson led the team with 350 digs in 2015.

Appleman also believes as a senior Steinberg has led on the court where Swanson cannot, doing a little bit of everything and sitting second on the team with 32 kills and 40 digs.

“Obviously it’s hard when your captain is injured but I think everyone in stepping up just as much as they have to but Tori [Sheppard] is still doing a great job from the bench,” Steinberg said. “She’s communicating in games and telling us what shots to hit and what to watch out for on defense. Her presence is not forgotten.”

In other action at the Yale Invitational, Rutgers beat Iona 3–1 on Friday afternoon action while Albany beat Rutgers and Iona 3–0 and 3–1, respectively, on Saturday.