Riding a five-game winning streak, the Yale volleyball team returns to the road to complete its Ivy League season with a chance to win a share of its seventh conference championship in the past nine seasons.
Currently one game behind Princeton (17–4, 11–1 Ivy), the Bulldogs (17–4, 10–2) will need to sweep the weekend and hope that the Tigers drop one of their final two games to remain in contention. The Elis will first travel to Harvard (7–14, 5–7), a deceptively dangerous team, before completing the Ancient Eight schedule at Dartmouth (8–15, 1–11). Winning out would give Yale a perfect record in the second half of the season and ensure that the team finishes in the top two, a feat it has accomplished in 11 of the past 12 seasons under the tenure of head coach Erin Appleman.
“Although this isn’t the optimal situation for us, we are working hard to ensure that we come away from this weekend knowing that we did our part,” outside hitter Tristin Kott ’20 said. “The biggest key for this weekend is controlling what happens on our side of the court.”
Coming off a dramatic five-set comeback victory against Princeton last weekend -— the Tigers’ first loss in their last 18 conference games — the Bulldogs will face Harvard, one of the few other teams that can challenge the league leaders. Princeton and the Crimson shared the conference championship last season, with Yale one game behind in a tie for third.
While the Crimson has regressed, it has benefitted from an infusion of young talent to complement its veteran leader, senior setter and three-time All-Ivy First-Team selection Corinne Bain. Freshman outside hitter Grace Roberts Burbank has thrived in her first season, ranking eighth in the league in kills per set. Two more underclassmen, middle blockers Christina Cornelius and Maclaine Fields, have proved to be an imposing duo at the net — both average nearly one rejection per set.
“I think [Harvard] has one of the best competitors in the conference in Corinne Bain,” Appleman said. “She’s extremely competitive and very good, [and] they have a pair of two of the top middles. … It’s a huge challenge, [which] keeps us focused.”
Bain recorded 24 kills and 32 digs last weekend in two games when Harvard topped Cornell on the road and then fell to Columbia, a team that handed the Elis one of their two losses this season. In New Haven, the Crimson setter recorded a triple-double with 11 kills, 12 digs and 24 assists in addition to three block assists.
But Bain’s efforts fell short against a deep Yale squad. Outside hitters Brittani Steinberg ’17 and Kelley Wirth ’19 joined Kott to fuel a well-balanced attack, with each player racking up 11 kills in the match. Yale committed 20 fewer attack errors than Harvard while amassing its highest block total of the season en route to a four-set victory.
Kott was especially efficient, hitting 0.688 without an error in her first career matchup against the Crimson.
“I was just feeding off of the energy coming from us and the crowd,” Kott said. “With a rivalry as big as Yale and Harvard there is always going to be a lot of excitement and emotion which just makes the game so much more fun.”
Should Yale win the rematch in Cambridge, the ultimate conference rankings will hinge on the final day of the Ivy League season. Princeton will host Cornell on Friday before battling Columbia on Saturday, when the Bulldogs will face last-place Dartmouth.
The Elis were dominant against the Big Green earlier this season, hitting 0.348 in a three-set sweep. No Dartmouth player recorded more than eight kills, and the team managed just nine points in Yale’s second-set rout.
According to Dartmouth head coach Gilad Doron, the team has struggled with injuries from the beginning of the season. Senior Stacey Benton suffered a season-ending ACL injury after Dartmouth charged out to a 6–1 record to start the season, and the Big Green has won just two games in her absence. Middle blocker and right-side hitter Catherine Shepherd, the cousin of Yale captain and libero Tori Shepherd ’17, has also been sidelined with a concussion.
Doron said the chance for his team to play spoiler for Yale was not an additional motivating factor.
“Every time you prepare your team, spoiler or not, we want to get better,” Doron said. “The pressure is obviously on them — they have to win, and even if they win it doesn’t mean they’re going to end up the champions.”
Dartmouth’s co-captains and first-team All-Ivy upperclassmen Emily Astarita and Kaira Lujan would likely be at the center of a possible Big Green upset. Astarita leads the team in kills, while Lujan ranks fourth in the conference in blocks per set. The game against Yale will be their final game as seniors before graduating from the program along with six other members of the class of 2017.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to extend a remarkable stretch of success for the program. The team has been especially dominant at home — including two straight undefeated home conference slates — but will need to maintain its focus on the road in the season’s final weekend.
“What I tell every player that comes into the program is that every year we’re going to be in the hunt for the championship,” Appleman said.
Yale’s head coach attributed the program’s consistent success to its cultivation of a belief in her system along with its ability to attract talented recruits.
That system is fully ingrained in the Bulldogs, who will look to tune out the potential distractions of playoff implications.
“As this season winds down, we can’t change the way we approach anything,” libero Kate Swanson ’19 said. “We have to just keep playing our game.”
Yale will tip off against Harvard at 7 p.m. on Friday before heading to Dartmouth for a 7 p.m. start on Saturday.