The stakes are clear: The winner moves on and the loser goes home.
After finishing the regular season with the same Ivy records, the Yale and Princeton volleyball teams shared the conference title, the Bulldogs’ first since 2014. Both teams will hang a title banner, but just one can claim the Ivy League’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. On Saturday night, at John J. Lee Amphitheater, one team will punch its ticket to the Big Dance.
The Elis (16–7, 10–4 Ivy) and the Tigers (17–7, 10–4) split their two regular season meetings this year, each stealing a match on the other’s home floor. Although Saturday’s match will be in New Haven — where Princeton won 3–1 in late September — Yale enters the contest having delivered before in elimination matches. Despite the pressure of the Ivy playoff game, the Bulldogs remain calm going into Saturday, knowing they have already accomplished their season goal of winning the Ancient Eight crown.
“The team is thrilled to have a third shot at Princeton, especially because we were bummed to drop a home match to them earlier in the season,” setter Franny Arnautou ’20 said. “We’re really excited to get back to playing loose, free and aggressively 100 percent of the time, now that the Ivy championship is no longer a concern.”
Between the two teams, Yale and Princeton have had a share of the Ivy title for each of the past eight seasons and represented the Ancient Eight at the Big Dance in six of the last seven years. Yale is no stranger to the Ivy playoff; out of its nine titles, Saturday’s showing will be Yale’s fourth tiebreaker. Similarly, Princeton, which leads the conference with 17 titles to its name, plays in its third Ivy playoff game this weekend.
Where Yale differs from its competition is in its history of elimination-game success. Of the three times Yale has played an Ivy playoff match, the Bulldogs have reigned victorious twice, coming away triumphant from a four-way tie against Harvard, Princeton and Cornell in 2004, and winning the 2014 bid against Harvard.
The Elis have also been the most successful Ivy team at the Big Dance. As one of just two Ivy teams to ever advance past the first round of the tournament, Yale has won two NCAA games, one against Albany in 2004 and another against Ohio in 2008. Princeton, on the other hand, has never won an Ivy playoff game or an NCAA tournament game.
“It’s a nice bonus. It’s this fun thing you get to do at the end [of the season], and [while] we want to go to the NCAA tournament, there’s not that added pressure about it,” associate head coach Kevin Laseau said. “We feel like we’re loose and relaxed, we know our opponent, and know what we need to do … I think we have a great confidence going into this match.”
Ivy League Player of the Year Maggie O’Connell leads Princeton’s pack of standout hitters into New Haven for the big match. Five separate Tigers have earned Ivy Player of the Week honors this season — the only teammates to do that in one season in the conference’s history — and three Tigers rank in the conference’s top 10 in efficiency. O’Connell boasts a staggering 0.330 hitting percentage for her career.
While Princeton is led by the Ivy League player of the year, Yale packs plenty of superstars on its roster. When Ivy League postseason awards were announced on Thursday, the team placed two members on the first team and two on the second team. Libero Kate Swanson ’19 took home Defensive Player of the Year while outside hitter Kathryn Attar ’21 was named Rookie of the Year.
“It’s going to come down to what team can play together and be able to win, because I think the teams are pretty evenly matched,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “The mindset for the players [is different.] Down the stretch, the stress of trying to win an Ivy championship was very telling. But now we’ve won the Ivy championship … so there’s nothing to lose. You kind of just lay it all out there and go for it.”
At their first contest this year, victory narrowly eluded the Elis, who struggled with serve-receive and defense. The Tigers, who hit 0.324 in the last set, benefited from their offensive firepower to take the game and end the Elis’ 23 home-game winning streak.
However, when the Elis confronted Princeton in New Jersey in late October, Yale returned the favor by ending the Tigers’ 16 conference home-game winning streak with a decisive three-set win. The Bulldogs kept their adversaries to a meager 0.143 hitting percentage, with three of their own front-row players notching at least 10 kills.
“I thought we just played so clean last time, and we didn’t have very many unforced errors,” Laseau said. “We tried to dictate how things were going and force Princeton to do something instead of giving them anything. I think we were really aggressive in all facets.”
Yale will host the playoff game because it defeated Princeton in four of the seven sets between the two teams this year. The match will start at 7 p.m. at John J. Lee Amphitheater.
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