With just three weekend slates left in its conference season, the first-place Yale volleyball team controls its own destiny as it hits the road to face Princeton and Penn this weekend. Two wins would keep the Bulldogs — chasing their first Ivy League title since 2014 — at least a game up in the conference standings.
The Bulldogs (13–4, 7–1 Ivy) enter this weekend’s play riding a five-game winning streak after defeating a struggling Brown squad last Friday. The Elis will look to capitalize on their rapid ascent to the top of the Ancient Eight, beginning the weekend with a rematch against second-place Princeton (13–5, 6–2) followed by another bout with Penn (8–9, 3–5) on Saturday. The Tigers handed Yale its lone conference defeat of the season and first home loss in nearly three years on Sep. 30.
“We are extremely happy to be first in the Ivies right now,” captain and setter Kelsey Crawford ’18 said. “Playing on the road is always more challenging than playing at home due to external elements that we cannot control, so it is important to focus on what we can control to play the best we can.”
Princeton’s high-powered squad began conference play on an impressive tear, dropping just two sets within a span of five matches to its campaign for a third consecutive Ivy League title. However, after suffering surprising defeats at Cornell and Columbia to conclude its first round of conference play, the defending champion’s momentum was stunted.
That same weekend, the Bulldogs captured victories at Dartmouth and Harvard, and secured sole control of the top position in the conference. Despite dropping in the standings, the Tigers remain an imposing offensive force, as they still rank first in the Ivy League in kills per set, with 13.87.
Princeton middle blocker Caroline Sklaver has continued to be reliable at the net for the Tigers, boasting a 0.342 hitting percentage — the third-best average in the conference. The strength of Princeton’s attack is further evident in the offensive consistency of outside hitter Natasha Skov and right side hitter Maggie O’Connell, who have averaged 3.45 and 3.24 kills per set, respectively. Both Skov and O’Connell’s averages rank among the top five in the Ivy League.
In their last contest against Princeton, the Bulldogs struggled to thwart the Tigers’ multifaceted offensive unit and were especially challenged with Princeton middle blocker Ibe Nnenna’s play. The junior executed a nearly flawless performance, tallying 10 kills on just 14 attempts, without registering any errors. The Elis also failed to find their own offensive rhythm in the match, and notched a lackluster 0.213 team hitting percentage for the match. Although its loss against Princeton ended a 23-match home winning streak for Yale, the Bulldogs refused to let the loss set the tone for the rest of the season.
“I don’t think we played particularly well the first time we played [Princeton],” Yale head coach Erin Appleman said. “We were a little nervous, and it definitely showed in our game. It was a matter of working out some kinks. … Our lineup has changed a lot throughout the year, and it changes almost every game. So I think having the flexibility with that has really helped alleviate some of the pressure on [our team].”
The Bulldogs will follow up the game against Princeton by traveling to Philadelphia, where they will face a Penn team that is tied for fifth place in the Ivy League. Last week, the Tigers swept the Quakers for the second time this season, extending Penn’s losing streak to two games. The Red and Blue have struggled with defense throughout the season, ranking last in the Ivy League in digs per conference set with just 13.3. Often left scrambling to recover attacks at the hands of its opponents, Penn has also given up the highest opponent hitting percentage in conference games.
In Yale and Penn’s first meeting this season, the Bulldogs clinched a four-set victory, dominating the last set with a 25–13 score line. Outside hitters Kathryn Attar ’21 and Gray Malias ’19 registered 19 kills and 13 kills, respectively. Still, Appleman is anticipating a competitive game this Saturday, as the Quakers seek to rebound from last week’s loss. Both teams boast comparable hitting percentages, with Penn at 0.222 and Yale at 0.241.
“[Penn has] some good offensive weapons and some freshman outside hitters that are playing really well,” Appleman said. “They have senior leadership on the court with their setter and middle blocker. … They’re a better team at home, so I think we’re expecting a much tougher match at their place.”
Leading the Quakers’ offensive front are two rookie outside hitters, Parker Jones and Raven Sulaimon. Jones leads the regiment with an average of 3.36 kills per set, which ranks third in the Ivy League. Last weekend against Princeton, Sulaimon notched 11 kills, leading the squad in efficiency with a 0.444 kill percentage.
Going into the weekend, the Elis are ready to take advantage of the chemistry between their players, three of whom were awarded conferencewide accolades this week. Libero and defensive specialist Yurika Boyd ’21 was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week after she recorded a career-high 27 digs against Brown. Hitters Izzy Simqu ’20 and Tristin Kott ’20 were placed on the Ivy League Weekly Honor Roll.
“We have really thrived at our away games so far,” Boyd said. “We create our own energy as a team to make a competitive and fun atmosphere.”
The contest against Princeton starts Friday at 7 p.m. in Dillon Gymnasium, and Saturday’s game against Penn begins at 5 p.m. at the Palestra.
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