Courtesy of Yale Athletics

As chilly September days in New Haven begin to offer a brisk taste of the upcoming fall and winter seasons, the Yale volleyball team will trade its sweatshirts for sandals as it hits the West Coast this weekend.

The undefeated Elis (3–0, 0–0 Ivy), led by outside hitter and reigning Ivy League Player of the Week Kelley Wirth ’19, will begin competition in the UCSB Thunderdome Classic on Friday morning against the host University of California, Santa Barbara (0–6, 0–0 Big West). Later that evening, Yale will face Arkansas (6–1, 0–0 Southeastern), in the Bulldogs’ first match against the Razorbacks in program history before finishing up play on Saturday night with a contest against the University of Southern California (4–2, 0–0 Pac-12).

“It’s a long day for us, that’s for sure,” head coach Erin Appleman said of her team’s travel plans, which included a red-eye flight Wednesday night. “Once you get going, you just have to treat it like any other match. We play Santa Barbara at 10 in the morning their time, so … there will probably not be a lot of fans in the gym — hopefully we’ll be able to take advantage of that.”

According to Appleman, the Bulldogs will face “unbelievably gifted left-side hitters” in each of their three matches, the first being UCSB red-shirt sophomore Lindsey Ruddins. As a rookie in 2016, she earned numerous distinctions, including honorable mention All-America and Conference Rookie of the Year honors. Ruddins has continued to ride her wave of success in the opening matches of her sophomore campaign, having averaged 5.06 kills per set and 2.88 digs per set for the Gauchos.

Despite her team’s slow start, UCSB head coach Nicole Lantagne Welch said she is looking forward to competing in front of a home crowd this weekend for the first time all season.

“We are very excited to be finally playing at home,” Welch said. “There is always something special about playing in your own gym, [where] your fans can bring out the best in each player.”

Arkansas outside hitter Pilar Victoria is on an offensive tear of her own, having scorched her competition with a nation-best 6.71 kills per set in the first seven games of her senior season. Her stellar 0.390 hitting percentage has undoubtedly contributed to the Razorbacks’ hot start, which was only tainted by a defeat to nationally ranked No. 6 Wisconsin last Friday.

The Razorbacks have not only fed off of the success of their veterans, though, as rookie middle blocker Elizabeth Pamphile has already collected 49 kills of her own. The Orlando, Florida, native is also averaging 0.54 blocks per set, trailing only junior middle blocker Kelly O’Brien for the team lead.

Arkansas head coach Jason Watson explained that teamwide chemistry and leadership has been essential in the season’s early goings.

“We don’t put much stock on leadership coming just because you’re older; we feel like every person’s voice is important,” he said. “Certainly those who have been in the program longer are a bit more comfortable, and they’ve been great. We’ve tried to encourage our [players] to be the best possible teammates they can be. Their job is to be great teammates, and the coaching staff will take care of holding people accountable to performance.”

Though the Trojans missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 21 years last season, they still present extremely experienced and challenging competition for the Bulldogs in the weekend’s final match. Sophomore captain and outside hitter Khalia Lanier has set the offensive tone for the team with 101 kills and 10 aces so far this season. According to Appleman, Lanier is “probably one of the top five players in the country.”

Yale will continue to evaluate different roster combinations in preparation for its weekend road trip. Outside hitter Kathryn Attar ’21 and middle blockers Destiny Daniel ’21 and Chiara Spain ’21 all saw substantial playing time at the season-opening Yale Invitational, and Appleman will have to determine how to balance their youth with the experience of the team’s veterans.

The 14-year Bulldog coach said she largely uses her instincts and the “eye test” to make lineup decisions, though sometimes individual statistics will highlight a player who is performing efficiently under the radar. Appleman will employ a different starting unit than she did last weekend, she said, though will refrain from committing to one true lineup.

“It’s not just match-by-match, it’s set-by-set,” Appleman said. “[I am] looking to see … who can give us a little bit of a lift at times if we need it, looking to see who’s really consistent. … I think that’s what traveling on the road gives us — a chance to see players under a little bit more pressure, and if they’re consistently performing where they need to be.”

After the doubleheader on Friday, Yale will face USC at 7 p.m. on Saturday night before returning to the Elm City.

Steven Rome | @srome97 

Ellen Margaret Andrews