Finally home after four straight road weekends, the Yale volleyball team will look to keep pace in Ivy League play as it hosts Dartmouth and Harvard — two conference foes that have faced early struggles but will challenge the Bulldogs as the conference season heats up.
Yale’s momentum coming off of its best start to a season in seven years ended last weekend when Columbia persevered in an intense five-set match. Now the Elis (9–3, 2–1 Ivy), who rebounded with a win at Cornell, will depend on their depth and aggressive play when they battle the Big Green (6–7, 0–3) on Friday night and the Crimson (3–9, 1–2) on Saturday.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been home,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “It’s a big weekend for us [after splitting with both last season], and both teams are very talented.”
According to Appleman, while both Dartmouth and Harvard are below the Bulldogs in the standings, each program has had to deal with injuries that may have masked their talent.
The Big Green, led by first-team All-Ivy opposite hitter Emily Astarita and the 6-foot-4-inch first-team All-Ivy middle blocker Kaira Lujan, tied the Bulldogs for third place in the Ivy League last year. The Elis, avenging their loss to Dartmouth in Hanover earlier in the season, played the role of the spoiler as they won a back-and-forth five-set match in the season’s final game to prevent the Big Green from winning a share of the conference title. Dartmouth could almost taste its championship in the fifth set when it built a 9–5 lead before Yale caught fire, stringing together seven consecutive points to steal the set 15–13.
While both Astarita and Lujan have continued to thrive this season — Astarita has the fourth most kills per set in the Ivies, while Lujan is second in blocks per set — the team has faltered in conference play and will arrive in New Haven carrying the burden of a six-game losing streak.
Regardless of their opponents, the Bulldogs have been emphasizing mental fortitude ahead of this pivotal weekend.
“This week we’ve been working really hard at just battling and being tough,” said setter Franny Arnautou ’20, who made the Ivy Honor Roll this week after combining for 51 assists last weekend. “We’ve been going at it in practice, and the competitiveness has been palpable. I think more than any strategy or technique, the most important thing for us against both opponents this weekend is to be confident, fully committed to every play and focused on doing our individual jobs as well as we can.”
That pinpoint focus could help the Bulldogs on Saturday when Harvard — along with an ESPN crew — arrives for an evening showdown. The Crimson lost both of its contests last week against Penn and Princeton, in part due to the loss of outside hitter Paige Kebe to injury. Kebe has the third-most kills per set on the team and the fifth-most blocks.
Harvard head coach Jennifer Weiss did not comment on Kebe’s status for the weekend.
Leading the Crimson charge and stepping up to fill the void left by Kebe is co-captain and first-team All-Ivy setter Corinne Bain, who has done just about everything on the court. Bain, who made the Ivy Honor Roll this week after a 21-kill performance at Penn, is fourth in the conference in assists, averages 2.35 digs per set and also has 20 total blocks.
According to Harvard head coach Jennifer Weiss, Bain’s volleyball IQ and athletic ability are among the best in the Ivy League.
But no one is ignoring the larger implications of the contest — it is, after all, an iteration of The Game.
“Ever since I committed to play here, I have been following the Yale-Harvard rivalry, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to match up against the Crimson [for the first time],” Arnautou said. “There’s so much history between our two schools, but the beautiful thing is that each year there’s also a blank slate and a new chapter. This is an awesome notion, but I’m also making sure to not hype up anything too much.”
One thing the Crimson will have to prepare for is a notably deep Yale squad. Appleman noted how some players flourished when they took on larger roles because of injuries on the team.
Libero Kate Swanson ’19 is a prime example. She has seen a larger role since captain and libero Tori Shepherd ’17 injured her wrist. Swanson trails Cassie Wes of Columbia, the only reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, in digs per set in the Ancient Eight. Facing Wes’ Lions last Friday, Swanson notched a career-high 28 digs.
The Eli defense, anchored by Swanson, stuck out to Weiss as she prepared for the matchup.
“We have to try to break down their ball control,” Weiss said. “Yale has a strong defensive system, so we will have to diversify our offense.”
The Crimson will focus on aggressive serving in an attempt to keep Yale from getting into a rhythm, Weiss said.
Yale, meanwhile, will hope to benefit from its long-awaited return to Payne Whitney Gymnasium, where it has won 41 out of its last 42 conference games.