The last thing Yale volleyball head coach Erin Appleman would have thought when crafting the team’s 2017 schedule was that Yale would win the majority of its nonleague games. But Appleman’s team proved her wrong, dropping just three of nine nonconference matches and compiling the Ancient Eight’s second-best record to start the season.

The Elis (6–3, 0–0 Ivy) put their versatility on full display during the nonconference slate, running different lineups and giving valuable playing time to both rookies and veterans against challenging competition in the season’s opening. Yale held its own against two of the top teams in the nation, No. 2 Penn State and No. 21 University of Southern California, and picked up victories against multiple Power Five foes. With nine games under their belts, the Bulldogs return to their stomping grounds against a familiar opponent in Brown (5–6, 0–0) as they kick off their quest for an Ivy League title.

“We are extremely excited to start Ivies and to show the hard work and long hours we have put in over the past month,” captain and setter Kelsey Crawford ’18 said. “We have played some competitive teams during preseason which have challenged our skills, focus and attitudes for the better. Our end goal is to win the Ivy Championship, but to achieve that goal we have to focus on little goals first, like focusing on one game at a time and making the most of every rep we get in practice.”

The Bears’ inconsistent performance as of late has exposed some of their weaknesses ahead of their conference-opening matchup against Yale. Despite winning its first three matches of the season, Brown hit a rough patch at the Sacred Heart Invitational, where it lost all three of its matches and extended its winless streak to five games.

The Bears bounced back, however, defeating a 7–3 Central Connecticut State squad in a fifth-set tiebreaker. After finishing its nonconference play on a high note, Brown will look to capitalize on a fresh start in upcoming Ivy League play.

According to Brown head coach Diane Short, her team’s sub-0.500 record is reflective neither of its chemistry nor of its potential. Instead, veteran leadership has helped the underclassmen feel comfortable on the court, and chemistry has been better than in past years.

“[The freshmen] are doing really well,” Short said. “The upperclassmen welcomed them right away, and we’re a really inclusive team, which in turn has helped them on the volleyball court. We have a couple freshmen starting and playing, and they’re doing well. Just having the underclassmen come in has pushed the upperclassmen to be better.”

Freshman outside hitter Gabrielle Moriconi has highlighted a rookie resurgence in Providence, averaging 2.28 kills per set and trailing only junior right-side hitter Sabrina Stillwell for the team lead. Fellow right side Camberly Moriconi, Gabrielle’s twin sister, has contributed offensively in her rookie campaign, averaging 2.10 kills per set. Brown has also relied on the leadership of rookie setter Bailie Salk in her first year: Through 11 matches, the Tiburon, California, native leads the team with 190 assists.

Despite her young core of offensive weapons, Short noted that defense is her team’s main strong suit. The Bears are averaging 13.54 digs per set in 2017, while Yale ranks last in the Ivy League with a mark of 12.31.

“Brown has always been a tough defensive team, and this year they’re blocking really, really well,” Appleman said. “We know what some of their strengths are, and we will try to counteract those.”

Although Yale’s lineup against Brown has not yet been solidified, the Elis feel confident in their chemistry and in their ability to perform to their potential regardless of who steps on the court, according to Appleman and several team members. Yale has no shortage of consistent players, all of whom performed incredibly during the preseason.

Outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 has earned all-tournament honors in all three of Yale’s weekend tournaments thus far in her junior campaign, and leads the Elis with a 0.302 hitting percentage. Outside hitter Kathryn Attar ’21 has also been a reliable contributor for Yale on both sides of the ball, averaging the second best marks on the team with both 2.14 kills per set and 2.48 digs per set.

According to setter Franny Arnautou ’20, nonconference play not only led the Bulldogs to feel physically prepared for Ivy League action, but also brought them closer as a team.

“I think the biggest thing about team dynamic that helps us is that … we all really compete,” she said. “We never take it easy on each other, so we all get better. We hold each other to a high standard. We all have one goal, which is to win each match that is put on our schedule, and that lends itself to a really cohesive group.”

With just one game to focus on this week, Appleman said her squad has concentrated its efforts on team development instead on game-planning for multiple opponents. Nonetheless, the Bulldogs understand the importance of starting off conference play on a positive note on their home court, where they have won 16 consecutive Ancient Eight matches dating back to October 2014.

“I think the excitement is going to be there,” Appleman said. “I would like to see us playing smooth, controlling what we can control, serving tough, passing the ball and getting better every set.”

The Elis will face Brown at home this Friday at John J. Lee Amphitheater. The match will begin at 7 p.m.

Contact Ellen Margaret Andrews at ellenmargaret.andrews@yale.edu and Ruiyan Wang at ruiyan.wang@yale.edu .