After beginning the season by cruising to its best nonconference record since 2009, the Yale volleyball team was reminded this weekend that its Ivy League opponents will prove to be more of a challenge.
In their second weekend facing conference competition, the Elis (9–3, 2–1 Ivy) split a pair of road contests against Columbia (8–5, 3–0) and Cornell (5–7, 0–3) in a weekend marked by balanced competition and a season’s worth of momentum swings.
The Bulldogs, who played on the road for the fourth straight weekend, rallied from a 2–0 set deficit against Columbia on Friday to force a tiebreaker before ultimately falling 15–13 in the nail-biting, winner-take all finale. The long bus ride from the Manhattan to Ithaca proved a chance to refocus, and the Elis triumphed 3–1 over a resilient Big Red team the following day.
“Having four weekends in row away was tough, but I think it was good for us,” outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 said. “We got some crucial wins on the road and we know now what it takes to deliver when we’re not in our own gym.”
The Bulldogs came out flat against the Lions in the opening stages of the weekend’s first match. Unable to find any offensive rhythm and stymied by the Columbia blocking scheme, Yale managed just a –0.027 hitting percentage in the first two sets as Columbia breezed to a 25–18, 25–17 advantage. The Lions’ starting middle blocker, freshman Chichi Ikwuazom, proved especially troublesome for the Elis in the early going, recording seven kills on a near-perfect 0.750 hitting percentage to go along with three block assists in the first two sets.
But a week after the Lions roared back from a 2–0 hole against Cornell, the Bulldogs achieved the same feat in New York, as outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17 and libero Kate Swanson ’19 helped will the team back to life with consecutive 25–17 set wins. The Bulldogs, who never trailed Columbia by more than a single point in the third and fourth sets, notched 26 kills with just eight attack errors in the comeback effort while benefitting from a number of Columbia errors.
With the match tied at two sets apiece, the two teams traded points until the Lions broke away to a 12–9 lead, forcing Yale to call a timeout. The Elis responded with three straight points out of the break to even the score, but Columbia attacker Anja Malesevic notched her 13th kill of the game just four points later to put away the Bulldogs for good.
The heartbreaking loss snapped the three-game Eli win streak and saddled the team with its first conference loss of the season. After failing to defeat Yale in 14 consecutive seasons, the Lions have now recorded at least one win against the Bulldogs in back-to-back years.
Steinberg finished with a game-high 20 kills to go along with 17 digs in her fifth double-double of the season and Swanson added 17 digs of her own, but their solid performances were matched by the showing of Columbia’s veterans. The Lions’ reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, Cassie Wes, led all players with a career-high-tying 29 digs.
“It’s still very raw to me right now,” head coach Erin Appleman said on Sunday. “The loss is still painful.”
Despite the dramatic loss on Friday, the Bulldogs came out firing in the opening set against Cornell on Saturday, quickly jumping out to a 10–4 advantage. Though Cornell brought the score within two on numerous occasions, and traded points with Yale for much of the middle of the set, the Elis pulled away, 25–19, thanks to a 0.429 hitting percentage at the net.
In the second set, Yale again built an early lead before the Big Red surged back to establish a 21–15 lead. The Bulldogs rattled off four consecutive points on a pair of kills by attacker Kaitlyn Gibbons ’18 and two Cornell attacking errors to bring the match within two points, but the Big Red’s promptly halted the Yale momentum with a timeout. The home team cleaned up in the remainder of the second set to win 25–19 and tie the match at one set apiece.
The Bulldogs again saw the effects of an inefficient attack in the second set, recording as many errors as attacks to sink to a 0.000 hitting percentage and allow Cornell to equalize.
The back-and-forth play between the two teams continued throughout the third set, which saw ties at 13–13, 14–14, 17–17 and 23–23. But after a Yale substitution at that last critical juncture, Steinberg placed a crucial kill and Wirth sealed the deal with a block to give the Bulldogs the upper hand.
“I wanted myself and the rest of the team to continue playing aggressively, and I think that by swinging hard in that 23–23 point, it helped,” Steinberg said. “[Wirth] and [middle blocker] Kate [Aitkenhead ’19] had a great block the next point to finish out the set, so I think going for it in that point paid off.”
The Elis played catchup for much of the fourth set, at one point staring up at a 19–15 deficit before finally breaking through to even the game at 22–22. A costly Cornell service error a few points later gave Yale the lead at 25–24, and Steinberg ensured that Yale would return to New Haven with a victory with a match-punctuating kill.
Despite its 0–3 start to the Ivy League season, the scrappy Big Red actually outperformed the Bulldogs on the final stat sheet. Cornell topped Yale in all major statistical categories, recording 10 more kills, four more digs, two more blocks and 11 more assists than the victorious Elis.
“We shouldn’t have won the match,” Appleman said. “But we competed when we needed to compete and came away with the win.”
Wirth, who assumed a secondary role in the weekend’s earlier action, came alive in the final set, carrying the Bulldogs with seven kills in the deciding frame. The Moraga, California, native has played in only 28 sets out of 42 total while she recovering from an injury, but played in all nine of Yale’s sets over the two-match weekend.
Wirth’s health and effectiveness on the court will be crucial to Yale’s success in its upcoming matches, next taking on Dartmouth and defending Ancient Eight champion Harvard at home.
“She’s finding her groove back,” Appleman said. “That was the Kelley Wirth that I know and love, and she played competitive and hard throughout the whole Cornell match.”