After the Yale volleyball team opened its season with three victories at the Yale Invitational two weekends ago, the Bulldogs traveled to face the University of Connecticut Huskies for the Dog Pound Challenge. Yale returned from Storrs, Connecticut, with a mixed result in the tournament that featured four schools with dogs as mascots.
The Elis (5–1, 0–0 Ivy) secured victories against the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers and the Loyola University Maryland Greyhounds to bookend a frustrating loss to the UConn Huskies, moving to 5–1 for the first time since 2010.
All three of Yale’s matches were settled in three sets and each took less than an hour and a half from start to finish. Despite the limited time on the court, Yale saw big performances from several of its stars, as outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17 combined for 32 kills and 31 digs on the weekend and joined middle blocker Claire Feeley ’17 on the all-tournament team. Nevertheless, the Bulldogs did not look as comfortable in their first road games as head coach Erin Appleman would have preferred to see, noting that her team seemed out of sorts against UConn (7–1, 0–0 American).
“I think traveling is a little different for this team,” Appleman said. “We did not play as well as we did the first weekend. There’s definitely some things that were pretty clear we need to work on. The outcome of 2–1 is fine because UConn is a really talented team but I would have preferred to have been more competitive with them.”
On Friday afternoon, Yale defeated the St. Francis Terriers (3–8, 0–0 Northeast) in straight sets, 25–16, 25–12 and 25–15. The Bulldogs committed a season-low seven errors in the entire match. After building a narrow 5–4 lead in the first set, the Bulldogs went on a 10–2 run to take control. Yale’s momentum carried into the second set and despite facing a tie at 10 in the third set, the Elis closed the match in resounding fashion by rattling off 15 of the final 20 points.
Yale was able to showcase its depth against St. Francis, as 12 Bulldogs recorded a kill. Starting outside hitters Kelley Wirth ’19 and Kaitlyn Gibbons ’18, as well as starting middle blockers Kate Aitkenhead ’19 and Shreya Dixit ’19, did not play the final set.
Steinberg led all players with 16 kills and 17 assists, her third double-double in the season’s first four games. With captain and libero Tori Shepherd ’17 still sidelined by injury, Steinberg has carried the team with her senior leadership.
“I was really proud of [Steinberg] this weekend,” Appleman said. “She showed true leadership. You could tell she’s a senior out there fighting hard and trying to do everything she can to help the team and we had to ask a lot out of her this weekend because others didn’t perform as we needed them to. I thought she did a really good job of stepping up and being that steady piece that we need.”
Following the weekend, Steinberg is first on the roster in kills and digs, while ranking second in total blocks.
“I think there are a lot of uncontrollable things in volleyball, but the amount of effort you put in, whether it’s on offense or defense, is a completely controllable aspect of the game,” Steinberg said. “Thus, I strive to push myself at every opportunity, and when my teammates notice that effort, they push themselves harder. When everybody is giving their all, the team gets better.”
The Bulldogs had little time to rest before they took the court Friday night against UConn and it looked as if a different Yale team were competing. The Bulldogs committed 11 errors in the first set alone, four more than they did in their entire match against St. Francis. After dropping the first set 25–13, Yale gave up eight of the first nine points in the second set en route to a 25–12 defeat. The Bulldogs would bounce back briefly in the third, taking a 15–14 lead before UConn mounted an 11–4 run to finish the match in a 25–19 final.
One has to go back to the 2014 NCAA Tournament for the last time that Yale lost 3–0 while also failing to score 20 points in a set — on that occasion, the Bulldogs lost to Arizona 25–12, 25–17 and 25–19.
Yale had little answer for UConn’s redshirt freshman outside hitter Kayla Williams, who led all players with 17 kills and 11 digs. Meanwhile, Steinberg led the Bulldogs in almost every statistical category, totaling six kills, six digs and four blocks.
“We haven’t been in season all that long, so we just have to be patient with our own process, keep focusing on getting better,” assistant coach Kevin Laseau said. “All the pieces are there, we just have to make sure they’re fine-tuned to be a better machine.”
The Elis returned to their winning ways the next morning, defeating Loyola (3–4, 0–0 Patriot) 25–19, 25–16 and 25–14. For the third consecutive game, Steinberg led the Bulldogs in kills, with 10. Yale also received contributions from Feeley and outside hitter Tristin Kott ’20, who tallied nine and eight kills, respectively.
Teeing up most of those kills was setter Franny Arnautou ’20, who had 31 of Yale’s 36 assists, building off a strong performance Friday against St. Francis when she tallied 36 of Yale’s 39 assists. Although Arnautou is only a freshman, she has adjusted quickly to the college game, leading the team in assists with 115 through six games.
“The coaching staff and all the girls have gone to great lengths to make it really easy for us freshmen to get into the groove of college athletically, socially and academically,” Arnautou said. “This team has such an awesome energy on the court and I had a blast playing in our first two tournaments. I feel very supported in all realms and lucky to be a part of this program.”
The Bulldogs will play their third consecutive, and final, three-game invitational next weekend when they travel to Houston to face Rice, Houston and Texas A&M Corpus Christi.