Though Yale’s talented crop of first-year players may have turned heads this weekend, it was a long-tenured athlete who proved herself a key cog in the Yale volleyball machine.
Outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 dominated during the Bulldogs’ opening tournament, providing her team with both an outstanding athletic performance and indispensable veteran leadership. Over the course of a weekend that saw the Elis (3–0, 0–0 Ivy) drop only one set in matches against Delaware, Rhode Island and Clemson, Wirth erupted for 34 kills and 36.5 points, both team bests. For her efforts, she was named tournament MVP and Ivy League Player of the Week.
“Becoming an upperclassman, it gives you some perspective on the team and what the team needs,” Wirth said. “So when the team needs a leader, you recognize that, and you’re there. If the team needs you to be calm, you recognize that, and you’re calm. It just kind of gives you perspective.”
Over her first two seasons with the Bulldogs, Wirth demonstrated promise. As a first year in 2015, she earned second-team All-Ivy honors after a season that saw her lead the squad in kills per set with 2.98. Her 290 points were also good for second among the Elis as she played her way to two Ivy Rookie of the Week awards. During her sophomore campaign, she continued to play well, ranking second on the team with 2.77 kills per set and 3.1 points per set, behind unanimous first-team All-Ivy pick Brittani Steinberg ’17.
Now entering the back half of her college career, Wirth’s recent play suggests that she may have taken her game to a new level. After quickly dispatching Delaware, the Elis faced Rhode Island, the only team that managed to avoid a shutout at the Bulldogs’ hands. Against the Rams, Wirth exploded for 16 kills — her best four-set mark since notching 19 against Harvard on Nov. 13, 2015 — adding 17 points to boot.
In the final contest against Clemson, she added another 12 kills and 12.5 points to her tally, earning the Yale Invitational MVP title for the second consecutive year. Her 34 kills through three matches are 12 more than her nearest teammate, and her 3.40 kills per set mark ranks third in the Ivy League this year.
“She [has] matured into a really nice high hitter,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “I couldn’t be happier for her to have a breakout weekend like this to start her junior year.”
Yale is eager to reclaim its status as Ivy League champion. Each year between 2010 and 2014, the Bulldogs either won or shared the title, yet Harvard and Princeton have recently supplanted them. In order to return to the top, not only must Wirth continue her outstanding play, but she also must help develop poise in her younger teammates.
Four of the 10 players to appear in all three matches this weekend were first years, including outside hitter Kathryn Attar ’21, who played in all 10 sets. While their play has generated excitement, the rookies will still need help adjusting to the college game, especially once the Ivy League season gets underway later this month. Wirth’s leadership skills may help buoy the team as it enters the heart of its season.
“With her past two years of experience … Wirth has gained a lot of confidence on the court and leads by example,” fellow outside hitter Kaitlyn Gibbons ’18 said. “She has really matured as a player and continues to show leadership out there on the court.”
The Bulldogs will see action this weekend on the West Coast, traveling to face University of California-Santa Barbara, Arkansas and Southern California. The Elis and the Gauchos will face off at 1:00 p.m. on Friday.
Ellen Margaret Andrews and Steven Rome contributed reporting.