This weekend, the John J. Lee Amphitheater proved to be anything but haunted for the Yale volleyball team, which scared off Cornell and Columbia in two must-win games.
The Elis (15–4, 8–2 Ivy) struggled at points throughout both matchups but were able to execute in crucial moments to extend their dominance at home. The Big Red (10–10, 4–6) battled resiliently, but the Bulldogs pulled away in four sets on Friday. The next evening, the Elis vanquished the ghosts from an early season loss at Columbia (11—–9, 6-–4) to win three straight sets after faltering in the first.
The triumph gave second-place Yale an outside chance at a conference title, with the undefeated Princeton Tigers set to visit the Bulldogs next Friday.
“We had to win the games, [and] we found ways to win,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “I obviously would have liked it to be a little cleaner … and we have to win out if we want to have any sort of chance [at an Ivy League championship].”
Yale and Cornell’s first set was tight, with the largest lead just three points by any team. The Big Red eventually gained the upper hand and forced set point, 24–22. But a quick reaction from middle blocker Kate Aitkenhead ’19 kept alive the ensuing point, which she completed with an authoritative rejection.
After another Yale point, middle blocker Shreya Dixit ’19 powered down consecutive kills from the middle to secure the set 26–24.
This late comeback, however, did not spook the Big Red. Cornell put away six kills without committing an error in a blistering 11–4 run to start the second set. Yale, by contrast, combined for only seven kills in the entire set, a 25–16 blowout.
“We just have to trust in ourselves that we’re going perform to our capabilities, that we’ll do what we need to do,” setter Kelsey Crawford ’18 said, commenting on playing in back-and-forth affairs. “Keep our composure — that’s the key.”
The script flipped in the all-important third set, and Cornell all but handed the frame to the Bulldogs by conceding 12 errors. In the fourth set, outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17 helped power a 7–3 run when the teams were deadlocked at 12. The Bulldogs were able to maintain that edge the rest of the way to complete the victory.
The game against Columbia was another tight battle. In the opening set, Yale had 10 attack errors, resembling its wobbly performance against the Lions on Sept. 30. Leading 19–18 on Saturday, the Lions rattled off five straight points, and a Yale service error — one of 13 in the match — handed the victory over to Columbia 25–19.
“We were kicking ourselves in the foot [in the first set],” Steinberg said. “We were giving Columbia a lot of points [on] a lot of errors, but I think once we got in the huddle after the first set, we realized we had to clean up our game.”
When the teams switched sides, the quality of play switched with them: In the second set, it was Columbia that treated Yale to 10 errors, allowing the Bulldogs to equalize the score with a 25–17 victory.
Another crucial third set ensued, and once again the Bulldogs delivered. Yale dug in after trailing 17–14, and a Columbia misfire ceded the Elis a 22–21 lead. It was then the Lions’ turn to roar back on consecutive whizzing slams from outside hitter Zoe Jacobs.
On the next play, a costly Steinberg error seemed to be the death knell for the Bulldogs, as the Lions led 24–22.
But the senior resuscitated the team herself. After saving one set point, Columbia seemed to have secured the victory with an attack that forced setter Franny Arnautou ’20 to helplessly deflect the ball into the net. Yet Steinberg, splayed across the court, somehow punched over the low ball with one hand. Jacobs sailed the ball out of bounds, leaving the score tied.
“When the game is that tight and there’s a set on the line and whoever wins that set gets the advantage into the next one, it’s important to do everything you can [and] lay your body on the line,” Steinberg said. “That’s why we play the sport and why we love it. I just dove for [the ball]. … It’s something I do every day.”
With the teams tied 24–24, Crawford resolutely fended off Jacobs’s high-octane attack with crucial digs, and Jacobs committed a momentous lift error to give Yale set point. Dixit then contributed to a block to complete what may have been the most important four-point stretch of the season.
This shift of momentum seemed to deflate the Lions heading into the fourth set. Steinberg smashed two of her game-high 17 kills in the first three points, and the Elis jumped to a 10–3 lead. They hit 0.391 in the set en route to a 25–20 triumph.
“We just didn’t finish,” Columbia head coach Brie Katz said. “We made errors at really inopportune times.”
After the final whistle, word soon trickled in that Princeton had escaped from a tight five-set battle at Harvard to maintain its perfect record. It will take a Yale victory this coming Friday over the Tigers plus additional help to create a tie between Yale and Princeton atop the Ivy League standings.