Courtesy of Steve Musco
Entering this season, the Yale volleyball team has dominated at home, winning 41 of its past 42 conference games on its own court. Its two victories this past weekend at John J. Lee Amphitheater extended that home streak, keeping the Bulldogs in the Ivy League title hunt after crucial wins over Dartmouth and Harvard.
The Elis (11–3, 4–1 Ivy) showcased their depth against Dartmouth (6–9, 0-–5) in their first home contest since Sept. 3, dominating the action in a three-set sweep. Harvard (4–10, 2–3) refused to back down in front of a boisterous crowd on Saturday, but the Bulldogs’ dominant blocking advantage ultimately proved too much for the visiting Crimson team. Yale’s two wins on the weekend position the team in a second-place tie with Columbia behind league-leader Princeton as the conference season nears its midpoint.
Yale’s most recent success was marked not by one standout, but rather by an extensive cast of high-impact players.
“We have so many weapons,” captain and libero Tori Shepherd ’17 said. “You strive for a deep team, and sometimes you don’t have that, but we can rely on every single player.”
Shepherd returned to the court against Dartmouth on Friday after being sidelined for more than a full season due to various injuries. She shared the court with libero Kate Swanson ’19, and the two combined for 25 digs to anchor a stalwart Yale defense.
The Bulldogs jumped out of the gate early during Shepherd’s return, scoring six straight points to reach a 13–5 advantage in the first set against the Big Green. Though Dartmouth senior outside hitter Emily Astarita helped her team back into the game following timeout, the Elis still cruised to a 25–17 opening set win.
Yale was even more commanding in the second set. Shepherd subbed in with the score at 12–7, and put Dartmouth off balance with her first serve, resulting in an eventual kill from Yale outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17. Steinberg, who finished the night with a match-high 13 kills, rattled off three more points interspersed with two aces from Shepherd, propelling the Bulldogs to a forceful 24–7 advantage. Yale finished the second set by a 25–9 final, hitting an astronomical 0.625 in the frame.
Dartmouth came alive in the third set and stayed close with the Bulldogs after the lopsided second set. With Yale clinging to a 20–19 lead, setter Franny Arnautou ’20 kept the ball alive with a diving one-handed dig to extend a long rally, leading to a well-placed kill from outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19. The Big Green scored only one more point after that as the Bulldogs pulled away to a 25–20 win and pushed Dartmouth to its fourth straight Ancient Eight loss. Arnautou finished the match with 33 assists, five kills and 13 digs.
Against the Crimson, Arnautou’s freshman teammate, outside hitter Tristin Kott ’20, thrived in front of a electric home crowd, slamming one of her 11 kills for the game’s first point. Kott hit 0.688 without an attacking error in her first time facing Harvard.
“Tristin is absolutely amazing,” middle blocker Shreya Dixit ’19 said. “If there is a definition of powerhouse, it would be [her].”
Strong play from Kott and Steinberg helped Yale storm to a 16–9 first-set lead, but Harvard dug in shortly after. Co-captain and 2015 first-team All-Ivy selection Corinne Bain fired home a kill and a service ace to fuel a gritty Harvard comeback, which narrowed the score to 21–20.
But Yale pulled away again as Kott forced a side out with a kill. A strong serve from Steinberg set up another kill from the freshman to make it 23–20, and Dixit and Wirth secured the first-set victory with a pair of block assists.
Blocking was a clear advantage for the Bulldogs, whose 16 total team rejections in the contest were the most in any single game this season for the team. Dixit led the team with eight block assists, and middle blocker Kate Aitkenhead ’19 chipped in six assists in addition to one solo stuff.
“We’ve been working a lot [on blocking], and [Dixit and Aitkenhead] have been working hard,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “A lot of [their success comes from] scouting and knowing where to be.”
In the second set, the Crimson took its first lead of the game at 4–3, part of a string of three straight points won on the serve of middle blocker Jocelyn Meyer who stymied Yale throughout the match. The Elis tied it up multiple times but could not regain the lead in the frame, and Harvard triumphed, 25–22.
But the third set followed a similar pattern as the first. Arnautou, who had a season-high 43 assists in the match, delivered a set to Aitkenhead for a kill to double up on the Crimson with a 16–8 lead. Meyer responded by winning four straight points on her serve, and Harvard stayed close from then on. With the score at 22–20, Steinberg registered a kill to force a side-out and won the next two points with powerful serving to close out the set.
The fourth set was perhaps the most exciting set Yale had played all year. After an entire set of back-and-forth battling, an ace from Meyer knotted the score at 22.
“What [was] going through my mind [in the fourth set] was, ‘This is typical Yale-Harvard,’” Appleman said. “Everyone [was] playing at their best and just trying to fight.”
The two teams tied five more times before the gripping set was over. A block assist from Bain gave the Crimson a 23–22 advantage — its first lead since being ahead 1–0 in the set — but an authoritative kill from Kott answered the threat. The crowd rose to its feet when Yale forced set point at 24–23 following a miscue from Bain, only to promptly sit back down after a Wirth error. Harvard took leads at 26–25 and 27–26, but Dixit evened the score when she converted a slide attack on a back set by Arnautou. Multiple impressive digs from setter Kelsey Crawford ’18 — including one off her face — kept the deuce point alive, and Steinberg finished it with a kill. With roaring fans cheering from their feet once again, the Bulldogs sealed the deal at 29–27 with a tandem block from Wirth and Steinberg.
“We get so amped to play Harvard,” Dixit said. “It’s a really big win, and we’re really excited to play Penn and Princeton next weekend.”
Yale will return to the road next weekend with a chance to claim a share of the Ivy League lead.