The Yale volleyball team finished the 2016 season undefeated at home and ranked among the Ivy League’s top three in nearly every statistical category. However, three conference road losses relegated the Bulldogs to second place in the Ancient Eight last year, two games behind champion Princeton.

A year later, the Elis (16–7, 10–4 Ivy) are Ivy League champions. Despite dropping four Ivy games, the Bulldogs squeezed out a tie atop the conference standings with Princeton. Going into the final game, Yale seemed destined for another second-place finish, but a five-set, come-from-behind win against Columbia and a shocking loss by Princeton returned the Elis to the top of the Ancient Eight.

“[My players overcame adversity] by playing the game they love with the people they care about,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “Down the stretch we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be … but I think that we just kept coming back and refocused to be able to move forward.”

The Bulldogs opened the preseason with a weekend sweep of Delaware, Rhode Island and Clemson at the Yale Invitational, a strong indicator of the group’s talent early on. Following their home tournament, the Elis hit the road for the next two weekends and dropped three of their next six matches, with two of the defeats coming at the hands of now-No. 1 Penn State and now-No. 14 Southern California. Looking back, the tests against two of the nation’s best teams strengthened Yale’s mental and physical toughness, preparing it for its later Ivy matches.

The Elis started conference play with early momentum by taking down Brown and Penn, but suffered a crushing home loss to Princeton, the two-time defending Ivy champs. The loss snapped Yale’s 23-game home winning streak, and seemed to all but crush its title chances just three games into the conference season.

The Bulldogs bounced back from the defeat by launching a six-match winning streak that secured Yale a two-match lead in the conference as Princeton dropped several games.

Carrying a roster stacked with young talent and veteran leaders, Appleman capitalized on her team’s depth by employing several versatile lineups. Putting different players on the court not only between matches but also between sets, the 14-year head coach achieved an unpredictability that made it challenging for other teams to scout the Bulldogs.

Beyond strategic coaching decisions, many of Yale’s players enjoyed standout 2017 campaigns that contributed to the Bulldogs’ success. Outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 established herself as one of the Ancient Eight’s top hitters, averaging 2.94 kills per game — the sixth-best in the conference. Middle blocker Izzy Simqu ’20 and outside hitter Tristin Kott ’20 also took the league by storm in their sophomore seasons, boasting top-10 hitting efficiencies in the conference.

The team’s three seniors — captain setter Kelsey Crawford ’18 and outside hitters Kaitlyn Gibbons ’18 and Megan Rasmussen ’18 — provided confident play at the net and steady leadership for the team. Crawford said the best part of winning the title was seeing long hours together on and off the court pay off.

“It’s amazing to continue a championship culture with this team because everyone works extremely hard and has a true love of the game,” Crawford said.

The dependability and toughness of Yale’s setters and backline advanced the Elis’ strong offensive productivity. Setters Crawford and Franny Arnautou ’20 have a combined 892 assists on the season. With a strong senior campaign, Crawford handily surpassed the 2,000-assist mark for her Yale career.

Libero Kate Swanson ’19, the centerpiece of Yale’s backline, also reached a milestone of her own this season when she secured her 1,000th career dig against Harvard on Nov. 3. The junior stands second in the Ivy League, averaging 4.58 digs per set.

Despite the caliber of Yale’s squad throughout the season, the Bulldogs had some missteps at the end of conference play. Heartbreaking five-set losses to Penn, Harvard and Cornell within the last five matches of the season jeopardized the Elis’ hopes for the title, but Princeton’s shocking loss to Dartmouth and Yale’s triumphant five-set takedown of Columbia in the last hour of Ivy League competition allowed the Bulldogs to share the title.

Outside hitter Kathryn Attar ’21 put an exclamation point on an outstanding rookie year in the title-winning match against Columbia, notching 28 kills, including on the Ivy-winning point.

“When we started to struggle, I think it was just a matter of trying to regain focus on what mattered most,” associate head coach Kevin Laseau said. “Sometimes when you’re struggling you’re thinking way too far down the road instead of thinking about what’s next. But when we got to that Columbia match, we just relaxed.”

The Elis can clinch an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament with a win in Saturday’s playoff game against Princeton. The match on Yale’s home floor starts at 7 p.m. at John J. Lee Amphitheater.

Ellen Margaret Andrews | ellenmargaret.andrews@yale.edu

Ruiyan Wang | ruiyan.wang@yale.edu