Energized by a successful homestand, the Yale volleyball team will return to the road to battle Penn and then undefeated Princeton in a pair of pivotal matchups that could shake up the standings in the Ivy League.
After triumphing over Dartmouth and Harvard last weekend, the Elis (11–3, 4–1 Ivy) are locked in a tie with Columbia for second place in the Ancient Eight, angling to return to the top after winning the conference championship six of the last eight years. The games against the Quakers (7–10, 2–3) and the Tigers (11–3, 5–0) will conclude the road-heavy portion of the Bulldogs’ schedule.
“We still control our destiny, and we need to get some good quality wins on the road,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “It’s midterms, which has the players stressed, so you just hope they can compartmentalize what they need to do and go in and take care of business on Friday and then refocus and take care of business on Saturday.”
This past home weekend demonstrated Yale’s depth, with notable contributions from outside hitter Tristin Kott ’20 and middle blockers Kate Aitkenhead ’19 and Shreya Dixit ’19. Outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17, who ranks third in the Ivy League in kills per set and second in service aces per set, continued to fuel the powerful offense.
The return of captain and libero Tori Shepherd ’17 last weekend strengthened an already stout defense led by libero Kate Swanson ’19, who ranks fourth in the conference in digs per set.
“Being home, even if for just a weekend, was a big boost for us,” said Kott, who had 11 kills without an error against Harvard. “Payne Whitney had such an electric atmosphere that it allowed us to recharge in preparation for this weekend.”
When Yale and Princeton faced off in New Haven last October, the Tigers were on a three-game winning streak and hoped to unseat the reigning Ivy League champions. Although the Bulldogs maintained their supremacy with a 3–0 sweep, Princeton has not lost a regular season Ancient Eight matchup since.
Now, the power balance has flipped. Yale finds itself the challenger riding a three-game winning streak into a contest against the current first-place and reigning conference champion Tigers.
“We don’t have the bull’s-eye on our backs anymore — they do,” Appleman said. “It’s kind of nice to be the underdog for a change.”
The Tigers have slashed their way through the Ivy League thus far. The team has averaged nearly 15 kills per set, hit 0.308 and recorded close to two more digs per set than the next closest team, Columbia, in conference play. Led by an intimidating front line composed of 2015 Ivy League Player of the Year Cara Mattaliano and middle blocker Brittany Ptak, Princeton has lost a combined two sets in all of its Ivy matches.
Mattaliano and Ptak, both seniors, are the league leaders in kills per set, ahead of Yale’s Steinberg. Joining these veterans is the freshman setter Jessica Harris, who notched 42 assists when the Tigers dealt Columbia its first loss of the season to gain sole control of first place.
For all its early-season domination, however, Princeton knows how quickly things can change.
“When we finished our first match against Yale last season, we were 3–4 in the Ivy League, and we made it back to win the title,” Princeton head coach Sabrina King said. “So we know very well that it is a very long season, and regardless of what happens this weekend, there are still seven important matches for every team to play.”
Yale will compete in an important game of its own before it even arrives at Princeton, and the team is not looking past its Friday night showdown against Penn.
The Quakers had a difficult pair of road games last weekend, dropping two five-set matches to fall below the 0.500 mark in Ivy contests. Yet Penn was also the team to have the most success against Princeton, stretching the Tigers to five sets in Philadelphia in both teams’ Ancient Eight opener. The Quakers had four players with 10 or more kills, and outside hitter Michelle Pereira led the team with 22 digs. Pereira ranks third in the conference in digs per set, just ahead of Swanson.
When the Elis take on Penn, they hope to improve upon their reception of serves, which was a weakness in their otherwise impressive wins against Dartmouth and Harvard.
“Harvard had way too many service aces against us, so we’ve been working a lot on passing,” Appleman said. “Having Tori [Shepherd] back playing is fantastic and that helps us a lot. When it comes down to it, it’s all about serving and passing.”
The addition of Shepherd added another layer to the many lineup decisions for Appleman to consider. Over the weekend, the captain subbed in to serve and play in the back, with Swanson retaining the libero position.
Yale will face Penn at 7 p.m. on Friday and Princeton at 5 p.m. on Saturday.