There’s no place like home for the Yale volleyball team. Just a week after losing to Princeton — the team’s first home loss in nearly three years — the Bulldogs bounced back with their usual winning ways in John J. Lee Amphitheater, completing a weekend sweep of Columbia and Cornell.
Eager to remain a top contender for the 2017 Ivy League title, the Elis (10–4, 4–1) edged out victories over familiar opponents this weekend. In Friday’s match against Columbia (5–9, 0–5), the Bulldogs overcame the absence of middle blocker Destiny Daniel ’21, who sat out the weekend with a knee injury, capitalizing on their roster depth to capture a straight-set sweep of the Lions.
Facing more formidable opposition in Cornell (7–7, 2–3) on Saturday, Yale ultimately overpowered the Big Red in four sets, despite dropping the opening frame of the match. Even though head coach Erin Appleman was disappointed at times with the team’s play this weekend, she was pleased with how many of her players made key contributions in the pair of victories.
“Our passing was really good both Friday and Saturday, which allowed us to set a lot of different people,” Appleman said. “This weekend really showed us how deep we are, and how we can have so many different people come in and make a big impact.”
Upon hitting the court to warm up for their opening match of the weekend, the Bulldogs were surprised to see Columbia’s star middle blocker –– Chichi Ikwuazom –– standing on the sideline as her teammates ran through drills in preparation for the match. While Columbia’s coaches did not comment on why the 2016 Ivy League Rookie of the Year sat out Friday’s match, the Lions appeared unfazed by Ikwuazom’s absence.
Columbia’s energy and competitive spirit was immediately evident as play began, and the Elis quickly found themselves in a tight contest against the Ancient Eight’s seventh-ranked team. With the set tied 20–20, consecutive kills tallied by middle blocker Izzy Simqu ’20 and outside hitters Kaitlyn Gibbons ’18 and Kathryn Attar ’21 helped overcome Columbia’s threatening play, clinching a three-point victory for the Elis.
Hungry to establish steadier and more aggressive play, the Elis jumped out to a 9–2 lead to begin the second frame. Showing little mercy to its guests, Yale cruised to 25–14 triumph over Columbia before heading to the locker room for the match’s intermission. Outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 proved once again to be a reliable target for the Elis in the second set, registering five kills and ultimately converting 11 out of 24 kill attempts in the match. Gibbons also delivered a standout performance for the Bulldogs, amassing nine kills and eight digs on the day and providing crucial versatility for the Bulldogs at the net and on the backline.
Despite falling behind two sets, the Lions refused go quietly. Without Ikwuazom, Columbia resorted to creative movements along its front line and astute playmaking decisions by rookie setter Audrey Cheng, opening high-percentage outside and right-side attacks. Right-side hitter Anja Malesevic collected 14 kills during the match, with seven of them coming during what turned out to be a thrilling third set.
As the set played out, neither team gained a stable lead, making it difficult for either squad to sustain any momentum. All square at 25–25, the Bulldogs proceeded to lose rallies on four consecutive match point opportunities, before finally completing the sweep with a highly unusual 31–29 scoreline. Despite winning in straight sets, Appleman felt as though her team’s performance in the first and last sets were not representative of their potential.
“I don’t think we were very sharp. We didn’t play very hard defense, and I was a little disappointed in the team’s effort,” Appleman said. “[Our play in] the second set was what we should be doing more often. We just played good, solid volleyball like we do every day in practice.”
On Saturday, both Yale and Cornell played another hotly contested match, with both sides bringing tough, offensive fronts. Throughout the first set, the Big Red held Yale to a mere 13.3 percent hitting rate, while four of its players registered at least 10 kills throughout the match. Sophomore outside hitter and libero Samantha Arenas secured 19 kills and 16 digs, leading her team in putting away points. Fellow sophomore middle blockers Jenna Phelps and Jada Stackhouse were also aggressive at the net; Phelps put away 13 kills while Stackhouse made zero unforced hitting errors and led the team with a stunning 41.2 percent hitting rate. Ultimately, Yale lost the first set by five points, ending with a failed serve.
Undeterred, the Bulldogs came back swinging in the second set, putting up a 31.9 percent hitting rate. Simqu, Attar and outside hitter Tristin Kott ’20 all managed to tally at least ten kills throughout the match. Attar, who is the current Ivy League Rookie of the Week, registered 15 kills at 37.1 percent, delivering reliable hitting while under pressure. When the Bulldogs were down a point at 25–26, Attar tied the game, preventing a second set loss. Two points later, she broke the 27-all tie, giving the Elis the opportunity to put the frame away at 29–27. With 13 kills and only 1 hitting error, Simqu led the team with a scorching 54.5 percent kill rate.
“[Simqu] has been capable all along, but I just think she got to the point where she’s more comfortable with being on the team,” Appleman said. “I couldn’t be happier for her and for the fact that we’ve been able to pass well enough to get her the ball. She’s been doing great.”
The remaining two sets proved no less competitive with Yale winning both by a narrow three-point margin at 25–22.
Over the course of the two frames, the Big Red and the Bulldogs tied 18 times, including at 22–22 in both sets, and experienced seven lead changes. Although the Big Red put up a strong defensive line, Yale’s consistency and muscle in the front row allowed the Elis to power through to victory. During the third set, Attar and counterpart Kott each converted four of nine attempts into kills, without any hitting errors. Simqu had a perfect hitting percentage for the set with each of her four swings registering as kills. Emboldened by their momentum from the previous two sets, the Yale team finished the last frame with a 41.9 percent collective hitting rate.
Looking forward, the Elis are anticipating five away matches against other conference teams, starting with Dartmouth and Harvard. In the week ahead, the team is planning on approaching practices with even more drive than before.
“We need to come into practice every day and bring the grit and fight we were able to show at the end of those close games,” libero Kate Swanson ’17 said. “That is something we need to show throughout every point. Moving forward, we just need to focus on the next game, get after it in the gym, have fun and get better.”
Moreover, the players recognize the additional challenges they will face when competing in unfamiliar venues, as well as the advantages they’ve enjoyed playing in the John J. Lee Amphitheater thus far. In particular, the Elis will need to turn to their teammates to promote morale on the court.
“Our home crowd was a huge help,” setter Franny Arnautou ’20 said. “We’re definitely motivated to sharpen things up this week as we won’t have their support for the next few weekends.”
Yale’s match against Dartmouth this Friday starts at 7 p.m. in the Leede Arena. On Saturday, the Bulldogs play Harvard in the Malkin Athletic Center at 5 p.m.
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