The Yale volleyball team has not opened up a season 6–1 since a remarkable 2009 campaign in which the Elis won 12 of their first 13 games. In order to reach 6–1 this season, Yale will have to do so down south in the Lone Star State.
The Bulldogs travel to Houston this weekend for the three-game Rice Invitational, a final tune-up prior to the start of Ivy play. Yale will face Rice on Friday as well as Houston and Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Saturday.
Despite defeating St. Francis Brooklyn and Loyola University Maryland last weekend at the Dog Pound Invitational, Yale (5–1, 0–0 Ivy) fell in straight sets to tournament host Connecticut, leading head coach Erin Appleman to suggest that the road games took her players out of their comfort zones.
“I think we were a little overwhelmed at UConn at times and the teams we are going to play [this weekend] are all seeded above us and we need to be able to step it up and rely on each other and our own skill level to be a little more consistent and steady,” Appleman said.
Yale will open competition in the Ancient Eight next weekend when it travels to Brown, the first of three away games to begin the Ivy season.
As such, this weekend’s journey to Texas could be a key indicator for how Yale will handle playing away from New Haven.
“These games are all opportunities for us to get better and to begin taking advantage of those opportunities and [to compete] every point and every second,” Appleman said.
The first of these opportunities will come on Friday afternoon against Rice (4–7, 0–0 Conference USA). The Bulldogs and the Owls played last year in a thrilling matchup at the Yale Invitational. Rice narrowly edged the Bulldogs 3–2 in a back-and-forth two-hour-and-35-minute affair.
For the Bulldogs to prevent a repeat of last year, they will need fill the void left by four-time All-Ivy setter Kelly Johnson ’16, who had 20 kills against Rice in 2015.
Yale will also need to find answers for Rice seniors Leah Mikesky and Chelsey Harris, who are averaging 3.44 and 3.26 kills per set this season, respectively. The two Owls combined for 41 kills against Yale last year.
Having lost to now-No. 9 BYU 3–2 and now-No. 21 Southern California 3–1, Rice comes into the contest more battle-tested than the Bulldogs, who have yet to face a ranked opponent.
“We’ll be facing some really talented programs and it will be an awesome opportunity for us to keep getting better, building our team chemistry on and off the court and preparing for Ivy play,” setter Franny Arnautou ’20 said.
Yale will play a double-header on Saturday, facing Houston (5–4, 0–0 American) in the morning and Texas A&M Corpus Christi (5–4, 0–0 Southland) in the evening, two teams the Bulldogs have never faced during Appleman’s 13-year tenure.
The Houston Cougars enter the weekend after hosting back-to-back tournaments, the Houston Classic and the Flo Hyman Collegiate Cup. In fact, the Cougars have not played a single game this year outside of Houston, as they opened their season at a tournament hosted by Houston Baptist. This weekend’s competition at Rice will hardly be a journey for the Cougars, whose campus is only a five-mile drive away.
Outside hitter Sarah Afflerbaugh, a three-year starter, leads the Cougars with 3.02 kills per set and is one of a few experienced players on a youthful team that regularly plays just one senior.
The night-cap against the Texas A&M Corpus Christi Islanders features another opponent which has experience against top-25 teams. The Islanders have lost in straight sets this year to No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 10 San Diego State.
Yale assistant coach Kevin Laseau is excited about the challenge that lays ahead, adamant that building a team is a step-by-step process.
“We just have to make sure we keep improving as a team,” Laseau said. “You get better by getting in the gym every day and working hard. So that’s what we’re going to do and keep doing. You grind.”
Yale will look to outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17 to continue the record start she has had this season. Her 3.20 kills per set and 3.55 digs per set are significantly up from the 2.32 and 2.10 marks she posted last year.
Arnautou will be key to Steinberg’s success this weekend as the freshman’s team-leading 115 assists this year have enabled Steinberg and company to put points on the board for the Elis. Arnautou, the only Yale freshman to have played all six games, has had to learn quickly in the first month of her collegiate career.
“Attackers are a lot stronger and more deceptive at this level so defending takes markedly more concentration and skill,” Arnautou said. “This is something I’ve been focusing on trying to improve, in addition to just getting to know the best ways to set various hitters up for success.”
It is unclear if Yale captain and libero Tori Shepherd ’17 will make her season debut sometime this weekend. Shepherd missed the first six games with an injury but said her recovery is on track.
The three games in Houston will be the last nonconference contests for the Bulldogs until they host Hartford in the final game of the regular season on Nov. 22.