The Yale and Princeton volleyball teams battled relentlessly and resiliently on Friday night, matching kill-for-kill in a five-set epic that lived up to its billing as the clash between the top two programs in the Ivy League.
The Bulldogs (17–4, 10–2 Ivy) saved match point in the fourth set and rebounded from a 2–1 deficit to hand the then-unbeaten Tigers (17–4, 11–1) their first conference loss of the season. Yale followed up the win with a dominant showing against Penn (10–14, 5–7) Saturday night to complete its second straight flawless home season against conference opponents. With the 3–0 sweep of the Quakers, the Elis remain one game behind Princeton heading into the final weekend of the Ancient Eight season.
“We’ve always been a contender for the top spot, and I think our confidence really shined through tonight,” outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17 said after defeating Princeton. “I think being two games behind [the Tigers in the standings] took a little bit of pressure off, so we could really swing. We didn’t think as much — we just played.”
Princeton’s deep rotation of aggressive hitters forced Yale to expend maximum effort. The Tigers cruised to a 9–3 opening lead, reminiscent of their dominance in dispatching Yale in New Jersey earlier this season. The league’s top offensive tandem of outside hitter Cara Mattaliano and middle blocker Maggie O’Connell, who finished with 24 and 21 kills, respectively, maintained this pressure on the Bulldogs. The Tigers committed just three attack errors in the first set, a 25–18 win.
The Elis matched Princeton’s first set efficiency in the second set, hitting 0.406 on only two errors. The Bulldogs created space with an 8–1 explosion in the middle of the set, capitalizing on sloppy play from Princeton and key kills from outside hitter Kaitlyn Gibbons ’18 to even the match at one set apiece.
“Princeton is extremely talented and has a lot of firepower. … That first set, the first 10 points, was not anything close to our A-game,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “We found a way to turn it around, and winning the second set gave us a lot of confidence.”
Play tightened in the third set, which saw 16 tie scorelines. With the teams locked at 18, outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 kept a long point alive with a one-handed dig. Later in the point, she gave her team the lead with a block assist, but the Tigers subsequently caught fire and surged to take the set, 25–21.
Somehow, the fourth set proved to be even closer and more exhilarating than the third, with eight lead changes and 17 ties. Mattaliano led the Tigers’ charge, racking up seven kills and a service ace in the frame. But with the Elis trailing 18–16, outside hitter Tristin Kott ’20 brought Yale back with a crosscourt kill — one of her 13 in the match — and then a block assist to tie it up at 19. Princeton countered with its own high-octane freshman; O’Connell had three hugely important kills late in the frame, the last of which gave the Tigers match point at 24–23.
“As a senior … [it was] an emotional weekend,” Steinberg said. “Thinking back on how hard we’ve worked this season and how hard I’ve worked the last four years, it comes together to the forefront of your mind in those kinds of points.”
Three kills later, Steinberg single-handedly saved Yale’s season and stole the momentum from the Tigers to force a fifth set with a 26–24 triumph. The senior finished with 18 kills and 19 digs.
Princeton never held a lead in the 15–11 tiebreaker, dropping its first match since Sept. 9 and snapping a 17-game regular season conference win streak.
Princeton head coach Sabrina King said the defeat “lit a fire under us.” She expressed disappointment that the rest of her hitters could not do enough to help Mattaliano, whom she said “carr[ied] the team on her back.”
After the protracted contest on Friday night, Yale made quick work of a middling Penn team on Saturday. When the Quakers took a timeout down 18–10 in the first set, the Bulldogs had yet to make an attack error, hitting a monstrous 0.483 in the eventual 25–14 thrashing.
The second frame was much closer, with Penn drawing even at 24. But a costly Quaker service error gave Yale set point, and the home team exploited this opportunity to take the set, 26–24. The Elis regained their sizzling attack in the third set, converting 13 kills on only two errors in the final frame. Captain and libero Tori Shepherd ’17 finished with four aces in her final home game of her career, while Wirth had an additional three aces in addition to a game-high 14 kills.
“I think we passed really well this weekend, [and] our setters’ location was great,” Wirth said. “I’m just clicking with the setters right now and getting in my groove.”
Now, after five straight home wins, Yale returns to the road for its final weekend to face Harvard and Dartmouth. Princeton must lose in one of its two games at home against Cornell and Columbia for the Bulldogs to have any chance at even a share of the Ivy League title.