The Yale volleyball team has become quite familiar with Ivy League success in recent years.
The Bulldogs (3–0, 0–0 Ivy) won the conference championship in six of the past eight seasons, including five straight titles from 2010 to 2014. They are also the winningest Ivy League volleyball program over the last 13 years. But in order to ascend to the top of the Ancient Eight yet again, the team is aiming to focus on its own development rather than the play of other Ivy foes as the season wears on.
“What we try to do is be the best and most-improved team, and try to improve every day throughout the year in order to get better,” head coach Erin Appleman said.
Appleman, the second-winningest coach in Yale history, helped lead the team to a successful campaign in 2015 with a 15–9 overall record and a 9–5 mark in conference play. The Bulldogs, which opened their season with three wins last weekend over Albany, Iona and Rutgers, finished tied with Dartmouth for third place, and were only one game out of first place, behind Harvard and Princeton.
Given the strength of the league, as displayed last season, Appleman acknowledged that another conference championship and berth in the NCAA Tournament will not be easy.
“All of the teams are very good. If you’re good at the right moment and stay ahead of the pack you have a chance to win the conference,” Appleman said. “Last year, the winner had four losses so the Ivy League is very competitive.”
Besides the competitiveness of the Ivy League, Yale will also have to cope with the loss of a five-member senior class — middle blocker Jesse Ebner ’16, outside hitter and captain Karlee Fuller ’16, setter Kelly Johnson ’16, middle blocker Maya Midzik ’16 and libero Christine Wu ’16. Johnson was a four-time All-Ivy First Team selection and Ebner finished her career with the fourth-highest career attack percentage in program history, at 0.316.
Libero Tori Shepherd ’17 has taken over as captain for the 2016 season, replacing Fuller. Shepherd started out the 2015 season well, with 65 digs in her first three matches, before she was sidelined for the latter part of the season due to an injury. Unfortunately for Shepherd, 2016 has not been much kinder to her as she missed the team’s opening weekend due to injury, though Appleman told the News she expects her captain to be back “soon.”
Appleman has been impressed by Shepherd’s leadership thus far and expects it to pay dividends as the season continues.
For the second straight season, libero Kate Swanson ’19 has assumed Shepherd’s role for some period of time, though the sophomore noted Shepherd continues to positively affect the team.
“It’s a big role but I have the team’s support and Tori [Shepherd] is super supportive and [helps in] telling me what to tell the hitters,” Swanson said.
Once Shepherd returns to the lineup, she will be featured alongside three fellow seniors in middle blocker Claire Feeley ’17, outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17 and middle blocker Lucy Tashman ’17. Steinberg was a second-team All-Ivy selection in 2013, and her 160 kills in 2015 ranked second among returning players, behind outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19.
Four juniors are also on the roster: setter Kelsey Crawford ’18, outside hitter Kaitlyn Gibbons ’18, outside hitter Megan Rasmussen ’18 and middle hitter Meaghan Truman ’18. Crawford averaged 8.61 assists per set last season, fifth-best in the Ivy League. Gibbons, whose statline included 70 kills and 159 digs a year ago, is already on pace for a career year in her junior season.
The Yorba Linda, California native recorded 31 kills in Yale’s three wins over the weekend, including a career-high 19 in the Elis’ 3–0 win over Albany on Friday night.
Supporting the upperclassmen will be a capable crop of returning Bulldogs looking to improve upon their freshman seasons. The five-member sophomore class includes middle blockers Kate Aitkenhead ’19, Shreya Dixit ’19 and Gray Malias ’19 as well as Wirth and Swanson. Swanson, filling in for the injured Shepherd, led the team in digs per set, with 3.76, and service aces, with 13, last season while Wirth led the team in kills per set at just under 3.5 en route to being named to the All-Ivy Second Team.
Both Swanson and Wirth are already leading the Elis thus far this season. Swanson, taking Shepherd’s place for the second year, has accumulated a team-high 45 digs while Wirth is pacing Yale in both kills and assists.
“I think coming back as a sophomore we all know the system better,” Wirth said. “We know what to expect from our opponents, from the Ivy League and from our coaches. We know what to expect from ourselves … We’re not babied anymore. A lot more is expected of us.”
As demonstrated by Swanson’s ability to seamlessly fill in for Yale’s captain, depth may very well be key to a Bulldog title.
Wirth said the team’s lineup flexibility could prove an appreciable advantage.
“We can put anyone on the court and we can deliver,” Wirth said.
The depth and experience of Yale’s returning players will be complemented by the addition of four newcomers: setter Franny Arnautou ’20, outside hitter Tristin Kott ’20, right side Rebekah Nemeth ’20 and middle blocker Isabelle Simqu ’20.
All four freshmen have already seen action for the Elis, with Arnautou and Kott having played in all three contests. The duo have made an immediate impact, as Arnautou ranks second on the squad in assists and Kott is fourth in kills.
“Our freshmen are super athletic and getting better every day. They are all in the run for competition to get some significant playing time,” Appleman said.
So far, Yale could hardly ask for a better start, three games and three victories into the season.
Swanson believes that the team’s early success is a promising sign of what is ahead in the coming months.
“I think we have very good team chemistry,” Swanson said. “To see it this early in the season is super fun so we’re just really excited for the next games coming up.”
Yale returns to action for another three-match weekend, when it travels to Connecticut for the Dog Pound Challenge.