After three straight weekends on the road, the first-place Yale volleyball team will finally return home this weekend for the penultimate round of weekend matches, facing off against Harvard and Dartmouth as it looks to maintain pole position in the Ivy League standings.

The Bulldogs’ (14–5, 8–2) road trip last weekend offered the Elis a soaring high and a disappointing defeat. They swept second-place Princeton in straight sets to further cement their position as the Ivy leader. However, the following afternoon, the Elis suffered just their second conference loss of the season in a grueling five-set showdown against Penn — a disappointing end to an otherwise dominant road trip for the Bulldogs. Despite the loss, the Elis remain hungrier than ever to secure wins in the last four matches of conference play, which would solidify Yale’s first Ivy League title since 2014.

“We just have to get after it [this weekend] like we do every day in practice,” libero Kate Swanson ’19 said. “We’re ready and excited to be back in our own gym.”

The Bulldogs open up the weekend against Harvard (11–8, 6–4) — a team that currently ranks third in Ivy League standings. The Crimson head to New Haven after dropping road matches against Columbia and Cornell last weekend. Both of Harvard’s matches in New York took five sets, but in each contest, the Crimson were outplayed in the final frame. Nevertheless, Harvard still boasts a dynamic offensive unit; its attackers have accumulated the highest team hitting percentage in the conference — an efficient 0.252 average. Yet the Crimson has also struggled to thwart other teams’ attacks, ranking at the bottom of the conference in both opponent kills per set and hitting percentage, allowing 13.01 and 0.239 averages, respectively.

Despite those setbacks, Harvard still remains alive in the conference title race. The Crimson has relied on consistent setting and converting kills at the net to help keep itself in the picture. Setter Erin McCarthy leads the Ancient Eight in assists per game, with a 10.41 average, and has found a dependable target in middle blocker Maclaine Fields, who ranks second in the conference with an outstanding 0.351 hitting percentage. Fields’ teammate, middle blocker Christina Cornelius, has also proved to be one of the Ivy League’s most consistent attackers; the junior claims the seventh-best hitting percentage in the league.

In the last battle between the rival programs, Yale capitalized on superb offensive production from outside hitters Kathryn Attar ’21 and Tristin Kott ’20, who tallied 14 and 12 kills, respectively. The Bulldogs took advantage of Harvard’s mediocre serve-receive unit, as middle blocker Izzy Simqu ’20 registered an unbelievable seven aces in the match, with four of them coming in the fourth set alone. Although the Elis cruised to a 3–1 victory over the Crimson, they recognize that Harvard will be hungry for redemption, just as the Elis were in their rematch against Princeton last weekend.

“[Harvard] is a really good team,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “We played really well when we played them [in Cambridge], so we know we have to play well again in order to beat them. They have a couple of middle [blockers] that are really, really talented and some outside hitters that can put the ball away. So I think they’re a pretty good team and we’re trying to get ready to beat them.”

On Saturday, the Bulldogs face off against Dartmouth (7–12, 3–7). The Big Green, like Harvard, lost its matches to Cornell and Columbia last weekend, leaving it in seventh in the conference after suffering a three-game losing streak. The Big Green currently ranks first in the conference at an average of 2.44 blocks per set.

Although Dartmouth thrives defensively, it fails to hit the same heights on offense. This futility presents an opportunity for the Elis, who boast a strong defensive backbone and aggressive front-row attackers. With four games remaining in the season, Swanson nears the thousand-dig milestone of her career at 985 digs. Meanwhile, Yale ranks third in terms of kills and hitting percentage, at 0.233, a mark more than 50 percent better than that of the Big Green.

In their last matchup, Yale swept Dartmouth, including a dominating 25–14 showing in the final set. Kott and outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 spearheaded the Eli attack by registering double-digit kill totals. The Bulldogs also earned 62 digs in three sets, their season-high number,  in their last contest against the Big Green, limiting Dartmouth to a 0.076 hitting efficiency. Despite its comparatively strong statistics, Yale recognizes that the Big Green’s strong blockers may still present a challenge for the Bulldogs.

“The second time around everyone is a little smoother in what they are doing,” associate head coach Kevin Laseau said. “[Dartmouth has] big, strong kids on their team that are feeling better about where they are on the team than last time. You have to be prepared for them to put up an even better fight than they did last time.”

Heading into their final home matches of the season, Yale’s three seniors — outside hitters Kaitlyn Gibbons ’18, Megan Rasmussen ’18 and captain Kelsey Crawford ’18 — will play in the John J. Lee Amphitheater for the final time in their collegiate careers. According to Laseau, the camaraderie among these three veterans has contributed to the strong team chemistry and dynamic the Elis developed over the course of their 2017 campaign.

“The thing about the seniors is that they are a united front,” he said. “These three are really very good friends … there’s not been any fracture in leadership. All three [have] been on the same page all the time and that kind of consistency definitely helps the team, and particularly the freshman, get into a groove.”

The contest against Harvard starts at 7 p.m. this Friday, and the match against Dartmouth starts at 5 p.m. this Saturday.

Ellen Margaret Andrews | ellenmargaret.andrews@yale.edu

Ruiyan Wang | ruiyan.wang@yale.edu