Just three years ago, in their rookie seasons, the current seniors on the Yale volleyball team experienced the thrill of victory after trouncing Penn in straight sets to secure Yale’s fifth-straight Ivy League title. Just two matches away from clinching another Ivy championship, the Class of 2018 is looking to finish its collegiate volleyball careers the way it started.
This weekend, the Elis hit the road to face Cornell (10–11, 6–6 Ivy) and Columbia (9–12, 4–8) in the final weekend of Ivy League play. Although the Big Red and the Lions sit just fifth and sixth in the Ancient Eight standings, both have proven to be serious threats to the Ivy League’s top-ranked squads. Both first-place Princeton and third-place Harvard were swept on their road trips to New York earlier in the conference season.
“The team is confident going into our next two games,” middle blocker Izzy Simqu ’20 said. “We’ve been preparing not only this week, but the whole season. We are going to take it one game at a time. We know what we have to do and take care of business by playing our game, the Yale volleyball that has made us so successful this season. We’re just really excited.”
In their first match of the weekend, the Bulldogs face a versatile Cornell squad that boasts several weapons at the net and the back row. In their last matchup with the Big Red, the Elis relied on steady and efficient offensive production from outside hitters Kathryn Attar ’21 and Megan Rasmussen ’18 and Simqu to overcome Cornell’s strong backline. Attar and Rasmussen tallied 15 and 8 kills, respectively, while Simqu notched a brilliant 0.545 hitting percentage by converting 13 kills on just 22 attempts.
“[Cornell] has been really successful at home,” Yale head coach Erin Appleman said. “They have done a really good job of protecting their home court and they have a lot of weapons they can use. They have a lot of different hitters, and I think that they’re just very good. If you look statistically across the board they’re in the top one, two or three in almost every category.”
Cornell’s success on the attack is indicative of its ability to keep the ball alive even against powerful offensive units. Libero Kiley McPeek has been a defensive standout for the Big Red all season, and currently leads the league with an average of 4.90 digs per set.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs face-off against Columbia in the last game of their conference season. The Lions come into the weekend on a two-match losing streak. Last week, they lost a five-set battle against Penn after being swept by Princeton the night before, dropping into a tie for sixth place. Still, the Lions wield a menacing weapon at the service line: Columbia ranks first in the conference for service aces, averaging 1.71 per set, the eighth-best mark in the entire NCAA.
“We are excited and feel prepared so that allows us to confident,” middle blocker Chiara Spain ’21 said. “We know what we are capable of, so it’s all about being ourselves this weekend. We’ve had a great week of practice and are super excited.”
In their last matchup, the Bulldogs quickly defeated the Lions in three sets, continuing their home winning streak against Columbia. The Lions have not won in New Haven since 2001. The Elis kept their adversaries to a meager 0.170 hitting percentage, with the Lions registering a 0.190 percentage in the second frame, when they only notched three kills. In contrast, Yale’s hitters put up a formidable front: Simqu hit with a 0.500 efficiency, and outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 led the team with 11 kills.
Yale’s decisive victory may also have benefitted from the absence of Columbia’s standout middle blocker, Chichi Ikwuazom, who sat on the sidelines for the game. Ikwuazom currently leads the conference in both hitting percentage, at 0.380, and blocks, averaging 1.36 per set. Named last year’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year, Ikwuazom’s dominance at the net will undoubtedly pose a challenge for the Bulldogs this weekend. Right-side hitter Anja Malesevic has also proven herself as a force to be reckoned with in the front row; she leads the conference in number of kills and points earned, averaging 3.97 and 4.49 per set, respectively.
“[Malesevic] gets set a lot of times,” Appleman said. “So we’ve got to worry about her. She does some interesting things in the back row as well. And obviously [Ikwuazom] is really good. She jumps unbelievably well …. There’s no one in the conference that jumps like her.”
Armed with some of the top hitters in the conference, the Lions will look for redemption this weekend, in hopes of continuing their home winning streak against the Bulldogs. Columbia has defeated Yale in New York for the past two seasons.
Currently tied for first with Princeton, Yale has its fate in its hands, but a conference title is far from assured. If the Elis drop one of their remaining games, they run the risk of losing the Ivy championship to the Tigers.
Yale’s contest against Cornell starts at 7 p.m. at Newman Arena, and the game against Columbia starts at 5 p.m. at Levien Gymnasium.
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