To attain prolonged success in collegiate athletics is no simple task for any program to achieve. But when a program has cemented itself in a league of its own, it is lauded as a dynasty.
The Yale volleyball team (4–2, 0–0 Ivy) will face one such program on Friday night — No. 2 Penn State University (7–0, 0–0 Big Ten) — in its opening match of the Penn State Invitational. The Nittany Lions have not only reached the NCAA tournament in 37 consecutive seasons, but are the all-time Division I leaders with seven national championships to their name. After their duel with the iconic program, the Elis will match up against the University of Ohio (6–5, 0–0 Mid-American) Saturday afternoon before wrapping up their road trip and their nonconference schedule against Wake Forest (7–2, 0–0 Atlantic Coast).
“The Ohio, Yale, and Wake Forest teams are all very similar, and Penn State sticks out as being really good,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “I think the matches will be very competitive. These are our last we will play before [Ivy League] matches, so they are really important for our preparation.”
Much like the teams Yale faced on its trip to California, Penn State receives its most significant offensive contribution from its outside hitters. Senior outside hitters Ali Frantti and Simone Lee, who were both named to the preseason All-Big Ten Team, lead the Nittany Lions in their final campaigns with 4.08 and 2.96 kills per set, respectively. The Elis will also face the veteran setting duo of Abby Detering and Bryanna Weiskircher, who have combined this season for a reliable 12.5 assists per set.
Yale battles not only the undeniable talent of the Penn State squad, but also its experience: Seven current Nittany Lions won a national championship under 38-year head coach Russ Rose’s leadership in 2014.
Even while boasting immense talent, the Nittany Lions have been tested during their undefeated 2017 campaign. Both Texas A&M and No. 4 Stanford took Penn State to five sets in the past two weekends before the favorite eventually prevailed. The Bulldogs will look to match the resiliency and toughness of the Nittany Lions, and focus on consistency, communication and high-energy play to give themselves a chance at the upset.
“Our mindset going into this game is the same as any other game we’ve played so far,” outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 said. “Our goal is to control our side of the net and play our game. That was the game plan when we played [University of Southern California] and we were able to compete with them.”
In their second matchup of the weekend, the Bulldogs will face an Ohio squad that boasts a winning record despite tremendous adversity on the outset of the season. After beginning their 2017 campaign having already lost two players due to injury, the Bobcats proceeded to watch both veteran Jaime Kosiorek and Katie Nelson suffer injuries within a span of just 30 minutes in an eventual loss to Dayton on Aug. 29.
“Preseason has been pretty interesting so far in that we had about five years worth of injuries in one year,” Ohio head coach Deane Webb said. “A lot of different people are playing … in different roles. But, I think that our kids have responded well, and are learning how to work through that. I’ve been for the most part proud of their efforts.”
According to Webb, leadership and consistency from the healthy group of underclassmen has been critical in overcoming such a large volume of injuries. Sophomore outside hitter Lizzie Stephens and rookie middle blocker Tia Jimerson have brought the needed spark and level of offensive intensity to the Bobcats’ squad, allowing them to remain competitive in their matches.
Stephens’ team-leading 3.92 kills per set and Jimerson’s brilliant 0.402 hitting percentage have kept Ohio on track in the weeks leading up to conference play. Nonetheless, Webb said he believes his team will continue to develop and gain key experience in their remaining preseason matches.
“There’s definitely a lot of learning that has to take place,” Webb said. “I think that we as coaches need to have an understanding that we need to do more to help our team emotionally because some of that leadership we had from our captains can’t happen right now. It’s our job to fill the gaps while the captains are out.”
Yale will wrap up its nonconference schedule against a defensive-minded Wake Forest team led by co-captain and libero Caroline Wolf, whose team-best 4.70 digs per set has secured the Demon Deacons’ backline in 2017. The Illinois native is a four-year starter, and her experience adds an important asset to her prowess as a libero, a position that demands confidence, discipline and alertness.
Co-captain and outside hitter Kylie Long complements Wolf with leadership at the net, averaging 3.67 kills per set. Yale will also have to maneuver against a reliable blocking cohort, as middle blockers Caitlyn Della, Caroline Kuhn and Katie Moore have each already logged over 30 total blocks so far this season. After sweeping the Wake Forest Invitational last weekend on their home court, the Demon Deacons will look to capitalize on their momentum in their final matches before ACC play begins against Duke the following weekend.
According to Appleman, the Elis will look to use this weekend as an opportunity to sharpen up in some important areas, especially in converting on “easier plays.” Likewise, the Bulldogs are looking forward to competing on a large stage and learning from each match.
“Playing against Hall of Fame coaches and some sure future Olympians is not only something to be grateful for, but it is a great chance to push yourself and your team to be better and step up to their level,” setter Franny Arnautou ’20 said. “There’s an excitement and energy in those matches that is really special.”
Yale will take the court against host Penn State at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.
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