Between 2010 and 2014 the Yale volleyball team lost just seven Ivy League matches combined as it captured five straight conference titles. However, a 9–5 season last year derailed any hope of a sixth-straight title, and the Bulldogs finished in a tie for third.
The quest for redemption and a return to the top of the Ancient Eight begins this weekend when Yale (7–2, 0–0 Ivy) travels to Brown (2–8, 0–0), a team that has not won the Ivy League since it took a share of the title in 2001. Despite Brown’s recent woes, the Bulldogs split their series with the Bears last year, winning 3–1 in New Haven but falling 3–1 in their most recent trip to Providence. With matches against stronger Ancient Eight teams still to come for Yale, a stronger performance against Brown this season will be important for the Bulldogs’ title chances.
“A consistent level of play [is] one of the things we’ve been working a lot on. I’m excited to seeing it on the court Friday,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “[Brown] has a pretty balanced offense. They are really scrappy and play great defense.”
Brown enters the contest with just two wins that came against Bryant and Central Connecticut State. On their way to a seventh-place finish in the Ancient Eight, the Bears went 10–16 and just 4–10 conference last year.
But one of those four Ivy League victories came against Yale, in a match where Brown middle blocker Payton Smith and outside hitter Sabrina Stillwell each had 14 kills. Smith and Stillwell return this year for their senior and sophomore years, respectively, and will be joined on the front line by freshman outside hitter Makena Ehlert, who leads the team with 2.44 kills per set.
“Once Friday comes around, [the key to winning is] playing together and executing the game plan our coaching staff gives us,” setter Franny Arnautou ’20 said. “We’re all very excited.”
Yale, meanwhile, leaned heavily on setter Kelly Johnson ’16 in its September victory over Brown last year, as the four-time all-Ivy selection scored a game-high 18 kills. Without Johnson’s power this year, the Elis will need to turn elsewhere to score against Brown.
Outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 may fill the void Johnson left. Wirth combined for 23 kills and 21 digs in the two matches against the Bears last year. Though Wirth has only played in 16 of 30 sets this season while battling an injury, her kills per set have just barely fallen this year, down to 2.88 per set as opposed to 2.98 last season. Appleman said she did not know whether Wirth will see additional playing time during Ivy League play.
“[Wirth] was injured for a little while, and now we have a lot of really strong players out there a lot, so week-to-week everyone is competing for a starting spot. I don’t know what’s going to happen this week,” Appleman said.
It is also unknown whether captain and libero Tori Shepherd ’17 will be a new contributor for the Bulldogs as they tackle Brown. Shepherd missed both games against Brown last year with injury and has sat out the first nine this season with a wrist injury. Appleman said she could not comment on Shepherd’s status for Friday’s match.
Yale will also need contributions from outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17, who had a total of two kills in five sets against Brown last year but is averaging over three kills a set in her senior year.
Steinberg’s performance has been key to the Elis’ 7–2 nonconference record this season, which setter Kelsey Crawford ’18 said bodes well for the future.
“Playing nonconference teams allowed us to challenge ourselves and try new things,” Crawford said. “We were able to develop team chemistry and get into the groove of playing games every weekend.”
Appleman is 23–3 against Brown in her 13-year career as Yale’s coach. Friday’s match starts at 7 p.m. inside Brown’s Pizzitola Center.