Midway through its match at Harvard, the Yale volleyball team seemed poised to capture a share of yet another Ivy League championship. The Bulldogs were cruising in the third set, and first-place Princeton was struggling against Cornell in New Jersey.
But a spirited Crimson comeback keyed by the relentless freshman outside hitter Grace Roberts Burbank deflated the Elis’ hopes for their seventh title in nine years. Harvard (9–14, 7–7 Ivy) nearly won the third set and then took the final two, spoiling Yale’s hopes at an Ancient Eight crown. Eliminated from title contention, Yale (18–5, 11–3) defeated Dartmouth (9–16, 2–12) on Saturday in five sets to conclude its Ivy League schedule.
“It was a very disappointing weekend in its entirety,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “I don’t think we played well on the road, and one of the things we’ve been working on is how to win on the road. I don’t think either night we played very well.”
The Bulldogs finished second in the Ivy League, improving upon last year’s third-place finish, while Princeton claimed its second consecutive title.
A week after handing the defending champion Tigers its first loss of the season, Yale needed to sweep the weekend and for the Tigers to drop one of their final two games to earn a share of the league title. But Harvard established itself early on as a formidable opponent. Middle blocker Maclaine Fields had two kills and two blocks to spark the Crimson to a 6–2 first-set lead. Harvard stuffed the Bulldogs five times in the set and hit 0.462 to build an insurmountable edge, which Roberts Burbank secured with kills to enforce the 25–13 rout.
The Elis matched the Crimson attack in the second set. Neither team held more than a two-point lead until a kill from outside hitter Tristin Kott ’20 put Yale in front 18–15, and the Bulldogs held on to even the score at one set apiece. The freshman racked up a career-high 20 kills on the night and hit an otherworldly 0.500 on 36 swings.
“Tristin was fearless at the net against Harvard,” outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17 said. “She played extremely confidently, which is especially hard to do when you’re playing one of the best blocking teams in the league.”
Another potent strike from Kott powered Yale to an 11–3 third-set edge, which the Elis maintained at 16–8. Harvard, though, refused to concede the set. Roberts Burbank sent home three straight kills as part of a 7–0 Crimson surge, narrowing the margin to 22–21. But outsider hitter Kaitlyn Gibbons ’18 delivered two crucial points, and Kott sealed the set for Yale with a kill of her own.
In the ensuing fourth set, the same pattern repeated itself. Kott smoked three kills in four points as part of an early Bulldog outpouring, but the Crimson were not intimidated. Setter Corinne Bain, a three-time first-team All-Ivy honoree, had a kill for a sideout and won seven consecutive points on her lining serve to give Harvard its first lead since the first set at 10–6.
The steadfast defense of libero Kate Swanson ’19, who recorded a career-high 29 digs, rallied Yale back from an 18–14 deficit to even the score at 20, but Roberts Burbank once again delivered with two kills late in the set, helping Harvard force a tiebreaker with a 26–24 triumph.
“We had some amazing plays but just didn’t step up when we needed to,” Steinberg said. “We were great at getting leads early in the set but unfortunately we couldn’t sustain them throughout the course of the set.”
The same was true in the fifth and final set. The Bulldogs looked primed to keep their season alive when Kott followed up a powerful kill with two well-placed tappers to give her team an early 5–2 lead, but Roberts Burbank kept the Crimson afloat with four kills and a service ace.
Ultimately, Yale was its own worst enemy, committing a receiving error, a double-touch error and a service error late in the set. This unfortunate triumvirate gave Harvard its 12th, 13th and 14th points en route to its stunning 15–13 knockout.
“We just did not play to our potential,” Appleman said. “It wasn’t one person, it wasn’t one aspect — it was a lot of different aspects. We weren’t ready to go early Friday night, and we were able to focus and come back, and then we weren’t able to finish what we needed to do.”
The Bulldogs eventually topped last-place Dartmouth in a rocky five-set win on Saturday in Hanover. Though Yale hit just 0.117 and was out-blocked for the second straight night, Steinberg carried the team to a 15–13 fifth-set victory with six of her 22 kills in the final frame, and notched her second straight double-double with 17 digs. Kott added 11 kills for her fourth double-digit production in her last five games.
Despite winning its final game of the season and posting an 11–3 conference record, Yale fell just short of the Ivy League summit for the second consecutive season.
“We are disappointed that we didn’t achieve our ultimate goal,” captain and libero Tori Shepherd ’17 said. “We have so much talent on this team, and though we didn’t pull off a championship this year, I know we could have. That is important … for the team next year to use as fuel.”
Yale will host Hartford on Nov. 22 to conclude its 2016 campaign.