Courtesy Steve Musco

As the home stretch approaches, the Yale volleyball team has its eyes set on once again claiming the Ivy League title — a trophy it has claimed six times in the past eight years. To do so, the Bulldogs may need to sweep the remainder of its games, including matchups this weekend against two gritty opponents.

The Elis (13–4, 6–2 Ivy) trail only undefeated Princeton atop the Ivy League standings heading into Friday’s game against a confident, surging Cornell team (9–9, 3–5). Revenge will be on the minds of the Bulldogs on Saturday night, when they host Columbia (10–8, 5–3), a team which handed Yale its first conference loss of the season in a dramatic five-set nail-biter in New York on Sept. 30.

“If we want to contend for the Ivy League championship, we have to win the rest of our games,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “We’re at home, and we’re at home for four of the six [remaining conference] competitions … so we have to take care of business at home and then go on the road at the end of the year [to vie for the title].”

Although Yale handled Cornell 3–1 in Ithaca early this month, the Big Red is a legitimate threat in its own right. A day after a close five-set loss at Dartmouth on Oct. 14, Cornell overcame a 9–1 fifth-set deficit at Harvard to topple the Crimson 15–12. That momentum carried over to last Friday, when the relentless Big Red vanquished Columbia, led by right-side hitter Kit McCarty, who notched 16 kills.

Cornell is indeed no stranger to long matches, as it has played the most sets in conference competition of any Ivy League team.

“Going to five sets so many times is indicative of our mental state in matches,” Cornell head coach Trudy Vande Berg said. “Beating Harvard on the road really got that monkey off our back. … This team is starting to feel confidence in [its] ability to win, [but] we know that there isn’t a match in the Ivies that won’t be an all-out battle.”

The Big Red’s first matchup with Yale was one such clash. Cornell actually outperformed the Bulldogs in all major statistical categories, but strong defense from libero Kate Swanson ’19 and a nearly flawless attack from outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 overcame this deficit. The Elis bookended the victory with extremely efficient sets, hitting 0.429 and 0.438 in the first and fourth sets, respectively. Vande Berg attributed her team’s loss to Yale to a lack of execution in key moments, and said her team was “tentative.”

In that contest, Cornell’s senior setter, Alyssa Phelps, posted a match-high 49 assists. If she maintains her high-level play this weekend, she will put her name in the Ivy League record books as the 20th player in conference history with 3,000 career assists.

Although it faltered against Cornell last Friday, Columbia, too, is a formidable opponent. Yale’s only five-set match of the conference season came against the Lions, who outmuscled the Bulldogs at the net in the first two sets to create what was ultimately an insurmountable advantage. Freshman middle blocker Chichi Ikwuazom racked up six kills and three block assists in the opening two frames, while the Elis committed more errors than kills over the same stretch. Columbia finished with 14 total blocks, eight more than the Bulldogs.

Ikwuazom, the reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Week, has dominated all year at the net, leading the conference with 1.41 blocks per set; the next closest player, Darmouth’s Kaira Lujan, averages only 1.07 rejections. Ikwuazom also leads the Ancient Eight with a sweltering 0.439 hitting percentage. Complementing this offensive firepower is the reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, Cassie Wes, who ranks sixth in the nation with 5.33 digs per set.

“I think in the matches that we’ve lost, in the sets that we’ve lost, it’s really been about us not performing where we need to perform,” Appleman said. “We’re really concentrating on us and our side of the net [to] figure out what we can do to continue a high level of play all the time.”

Maintaining that consistency has been a focus for a Yale team on the cusp of the highest caliber of play of the conference. After quickly dispatching Brown in the first two sets last Friday, Yale struggled to keep the ball in the court in a 25–19 third-set loss. The Bulldogs continued to look shaky in the fourth frame but were ultimately able to avoid a fifth set and secure yet another home conference victory, the team’s 44th such win in 45 matches dating back to 2010.

Appleman cited the team’s youth as a possible contributor to these lapses, and hoped that the Bulldogs would be able to maintain the focus necessary to compete in as many sets are needed against their upcoming opponents.

“We always have a sense of urgency when playing any team,” setter Kelsey Crawford ’18 said. “Our game plan is to focus on one game at a time and control what we do and how we perform.”

The match against Cornell will begin at 7 p.m. on Friday, and the contest with Columbia will tip off at 5 p.m. on Saturday.