After a two-year absence from the NCAA tournament, the Yale volleyball team had an opportunity to punch its ticket in the Ivy playoff game on Nov. 18. But the battle between the two Ivy co-champions — Yale and Princeton — ended in a victory for the Tigers.
Although the Bulldogs led 17–7 at one point in the first set and had a packed crowd behind them at John J. Lee Amphitheater, the Tigers rallied and took the match in straight sets. Princeton’s offense dominated in New Haven, hitting at a 0.230 efficiency compared to a meager 0.153 from Yale. The Elis also beat themselves throughout the game, tallying 30 unforced errors.
“Princeton is a very aggressive team,” Yale associate head coach Kevin Laseau said. “It doesn’t matter if its 1–0 or 20–0, [Princeton’s attackers] hit the ball hard all the time, and they serve hard all the time. I hoped [our team] learned that you can never let off the gas … and I think that’s what we did. We let up.”
In the first set, the Bulldogs capitalized on early kills to take the lead with outside hitter Tristin Kott ’20 notching six herself in just the first frame. The Elis also made strategic ball placement choices, mixing up their line shots and hard cross swings.
Due to 10 unforced errors throughout the first set, including three missed serves, Yale gave Princeton the opportunity to close the lead. The Tigers tied the frame at 21, and subsequent kills by outside hitter Natasha Skov and middle hitter Nnenna Ibe helped them solidify their comeback and take the set 25–23.
“I think the beginning was one of the best starts we’ve had in any match this year,” Yale head coach Erin Appleman said. “We got out to a pretty significant lead, but we knew Princeton was good, and they started coming back and we started to get a little tentative.”
The Bulldogs struggled offensively in the second set, suffering six attack errors, several of which landed outside the court. Yale trailed Princeton for the entirety of the set and achieved just a 0.158 hitting percentage for the frame, an efficiency that pales in comparison to the Tigers’ 0.333 percentage. Princeton sealed the set at 25–18 on a kill by Ivy League Player of the Year and right side hitter Maggie O’Connell.
Not only did O’Connell register seven kills in the second frame, but also she went on to convert another three in the last set to finish with a team-high 12 for the night. However, the Bulldogs did not go down without a fight. Returning Princeton’s swings more successfully and playing more strategically, Yale forced 12 tied score lines in the set. With a solid defensive line, Yale kept the Tigers to a meager 0.085 hitting efficiency.
Working in tandem with the front row, spearheaded by Kott and outside hitter Gray Malias ’19 — who notched five and four kills, respectively — the Bulldogs nearly took the last frame, tying the score at 23. Ultimately, two consecutive kills by O’Connell snuffed out the Elis’ hopes of representing the Ivy League at the Big Dance.
Kott carried Yale on a night when the team had few bright spots, finishing the match with a team-leading 12 kills. The sophomore will be one of seven Bulldogs who will return next year and played in at least 50 sets in 2017. With two first-year starters coming back for their second year and a strong recruiting class set to arrive next fall, the Elis will look to finish the season stronger in 2018. Yale lost four of its final six games to close out 2017, and the team would have clinched an NCAA tournament bid had it won any of those matches.
“There’s a lot of opportunities that we didn’t take advantage of at the end of the season and that’s something that we’re going to have to address going forward,” Appleman said. “For me it’s going to be about finding players that will rise to the occasion of the pressure games.”
Princeton will face No. 14 Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday.
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