Through two sets, the Yale volleyball team overpowered Brown at the net and service line on Friday night. The Bulldogs struggled in the next two sets, but ultimately held on to extend their dominance at home in a 3–1 triumph.
In what at first appeared to be a romp, Brown (4–14, 2–6 Ivy) took timeouts before the 10th point in each of the first three sets. Middle blocker Kate Aitkenhead ’19 finally tilted the back-and-forth, concluding set in favor of the Elis (13–4, 6–2), who maintained their hold on second place in the Ivy League. It was the team’s 43rd home conference victory in the last 44 contests.
“The first two sets, that was Yale volleyball — competing hard, doing the small things,” said Aitkenhead, who had 12 kills and took part in four blocks. “In the third set I think we let up in a way that was really problematic when you’re playing a team like Brown. And in the fourth set, even [though we won] that wasn’t Yale volleyball.”
The New York native made her presence known early, using a deft touch and then power at the net for two quick kills as the Bulldogs built a 6–3 first-set lead. Setter Kelsey Crawford ’18, the only player on either team to record a double-double, had back-to-back kills on the second ball to make the score 10–6.
The Elis later widened their lead with a run of five straight points on the serve of libero Kate Swanson ’19, who posted a game-high 21 digs, highlighted by two aces. This offensive deluge produced a 23–11 Yale advantage en route to a 25–15 set win.
“Getting those runs and keeping the ball in play is really important,” Swanson said. “[Brown is] a team that will capitalize on any opportunity any time we take our foot off the gas pedal.”
The Bulldogs’ continued their strong play in the second set, using consecutive rejections at the net to force an early Bears timeout at 7–2. Yale notched six total team blocks in the set compared to Brown’s one, with outside hitter Kaitlyn Gibbons ’18 elevating to stuff Brown on three occasions.
Like Gibbons, right-side hitter Gray Malias ’19 saw more playing time on Friday and she delivered in the second set she powered a 6–0 run on her serve with three aces. The surge put the set out of reach at 15-–5, and Yale cruised to a two-set lead. The Elis dominated the Bears at the service line, with eight more aces than their opponent and two fewer service errors.
“We’re first in the conference in serving — we attack the ball from the service line,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “I think everyone [serves] a little better at home.”
But the Bulldogs returned to the court after halftime appearing completely out of sync. They committed 11 attack errors in the third set, more than they combined for in the first two, and hit a paltry 0.029.
The Bears took the lead 8–7 after a four-point stretch while setter Elisa Merten served, with each point coming off a Yale misfire. Sloppy passing and more errors soon put the Bears in control, 18–13, and they maintained the momentum to force a fourth set, 25-–19.
“We really just tried to attack from the middle,” Brown head coach Diane Short said. “Once we established our middle attack more, started serving tougher and changed our defense as well … it really helped us play better.”
On the other side of the court, Appleman said she had no explanation for the drop-off.
The Bulldogs continued to struggle in the fourth set, with the two teams trading points and deadlocking on 11 different occasions. After Brown extended its margin to three at 12–9, the Elis fought back to even the score at 13 on a Swanson service ace.
With the teams knotted at 17, Yale took over. The middle blocker flicked over a ball where no Bears could reach, and Crawford lined a serve that her opponents let land untouched. A commanding solo block from Aitkenhead punctuated this run, and Brown’s subsequent timeout could not halt the momentum. The Bulldogs escaped with a 25–20 victory.
“I think the middle is a position that you can really dominate if you’re driving,” Aitkenhead said. “I’ve been talking to [Appleman] this week about driving and about being a presence [and] really demanding the ball from my setter. [It’s] a position that’s yours to own and yours to take and that’s a lot more of a mentality.”
Notably quiet on Friday night was Brittani Steinberg ’17, who ranks second in the Ancient Eight in kills per set. The powerful outside hitter did not play in the first two sets and tallied only nine attacks overall. Setter Franny Arnautou ’20 also saw limited action, as Crawford handled setting responsibilities.
Appleman did not comment on whether the lineup decisions reflected an effort to provide players additional rest, asserting that each week the players must earn their starting spot.
The full slate of Bulldogs will need to perform up to their potential next weekend, when Cornell and Columbia arrive at Payne Whitney Gymnasium. The Elis trail Princeton, which is undefeated, in the Ivy League standings.