Two top-tier volleyball teams, each riding dominant winning streaks, will clash in the John J. Lee Amphitheater on Friday night with championship implications on the line.
Yale (15–4, 8–2 Ivy) has not lost at home all year and has dropped only one Ivy League contest at home in its past 47 games. In the first of two games this weekend, the Bulldogs will host Princeton (16–3, 10–0), which has coasted through its schedule powered by a deep rotation of attackers. The Tigers have won 14 straight matches and their last 17 regular season conference contests dating back to last season.
With just two weekends left in the conference season, the Elis’ chances of contending for a title hinge upon their ability to do what no other team has done: disrupt the Tigers’ potent assault.
“You [have to] try hard not to let [Princeton] get in system,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “No one else has been able to stop them this year. Hopefully [by] being at home and having nothing to lose, just going out and playing hard … and you [hope you] can make some magic happen.”
Spearheading the Princeton attack is senior outside hitter and reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Cara Mattaliano. She has set the pace in the Ancient Eight this year, averaging a league-best 3.74 kills per set in conference play.
Mattaliano’s teammate, 6-foot-4 middle blocker Maggie O’Connell, ranks second with 3.47 kills per set. Two more Tigers, outside hitter Devon Peterkin and middle blocker Brittany Ptak, have provided additional offensive force and rank in the top 11 in that category.
To combat Princeton’s plethora of attacking options, Yale will look to ramp up its own aggressiveness.
“The team has been focusing on … attacking every play with the intention of putting balls away,” libero and captain Tori Shepherd ’17 said. “We work on this at practice with drills that incentivize different plays or allot more points to finishing a play on the first attack, rather than a long rally. We’re going into this weekend with the mindset that we are the aggressors.”
This adjustment reflects the struggles Yale faced in its first matchup with Princeton on Oct. 15, a 25–17, 25–16, 25–19 drubbing in New Jersey. In each of the first two sets, the Bulldogs tallied just seven kills while committing a combined 16 attack errors. Yale hit 0.048 in the match, as compared with its 0.216 average in its nine other conference games.
The Tigers set the tone early by scoring the game’s first three points and finished the first set on a 10–3 run. No Elis reached the 10-kill plateau in the match, and O’Connell proved to be especially difficult to stop from her right side position. The freshman had 13 kills, while Mattaliano posted a double-double of 10 kills and 10 digs.
“I think we were pretty prepared going in, and we just started off [with] four or five critical errors,” Appleman said. “[We] were playing catch-up right away.”
On Saturday, Yale will face Penn (10–12, 5–5), which did not pose much difficulty for the Elis earlier in the season. The Bulldogs pulled away in the first set, turning an 18–15 deficit into a convincing 25–19 victory. This stretch continued into the second frame, as Yale posted five points before the Quakers could get on the scoreboard and remained in control all night to pull off a sweep in Philadelphia.
Saturday’s rematch in New Haven will mark Senior Night, the last home conference game played by the Bulldogs’ class of 2017 . Among the seniors graduating is outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17, who has the third-most kills per set in conference play this season and the most service aces of any player in Ivy League competition. Against Penn, she racked up nine kills, 16 digs, four service aces and took part in five blocks.
“As seniors, it is crazy to think that these are our last Ivy games ever,” Shepherd said. “I don’t think that’s really sunk in yet. Obviously, we want to end our careers here strong, but more importantly, this is a big weekend for the team. We want to demonstrate strong leadership and do our best, as always, to help the team win.”
Appleman echoed the importance of refocusing on the match at hand after the Senior Night festivities. But the task of executing against Penn seems to pale in comparison to the effort it will take for the Bulldogs to stymie a Princeton team that has lost just four sets in the Ivy League all season.
After a disappointing showing in their first attempt, though, the Elis are relishing the opportunity to spoil the Tigers’ undefeated season and pressure the conference leaders in the penultimate weekend of play.
“We’re really excited,” Steinberg said. “We don’t think we performed as well as we could have last time we met Princeton, so this is [going to] be a good shot to show who we really are and how resilient we can be.”
Yale and Princeton will face off at 7 p.m. Friday, and the Penn game will tip off at 5 p.m. Saturday.