Steve Musco

The Yale volleyball team (6–3, 0–0 Ivy) opens conference play with a trip to Providence on Saturday, where it will battle Brown (7–3, 0–0 Ivy) in a matchup with implications that may reverberate late into the season.

Brown ended its nonconference slate with the best record in the Ivy League and significant energy surrounding a revitalized program. Winners in five of their last six games, the Bears also lead all Ancient Eight programs in hitting percentage (.247), kills per set (14.05) and assists per set (12.88). But that improvement will be put to the test against the defending Ivy champs.

“The team is excited to go after [the title] again,” Yale associate head coach Kevin Laseau said. “They don’t expect to have anything handed to them, and they’re excited about the challenge of playing teams that want to do nothing short of destroy them.”

New Brown coach Ahen Kim, who previously helped guide American University to five consecutive Patriot League championships and three NCAA tournament wins as an assistant, is responsible for much of the nascent excitement in Providence. Aided by two first-year assistants in Aubrey Marsellis and Katie Reifert, Kim has quickly found success at the helm, kindling the team’s early-season momentum.

Diane Short, Brown’s head coach for the past quarter-century, retired following the 2017 season after the Bears finished last in the Ivy standings, collecting a mere two conference wins.

Like Yale, Brown returns most of its starting lineup from a year ago. Despite its previous struggles, the group has made a leap and represents a much more potent threat than the team that the Elis swept last fall.

Outside hitter Sabrina Stillwell, one of three senior captains for the Bears, leads her team in nearly every offensive statistic. After posting 19 kills and 10 digs in a win over local rival Bryant on Tuesday, she looks to net her seventh straight double-double against Yale. Stillwell currently leads the Ivy League and ranks 14th in the NCAA with 4.59 kills per set.

Brown has received crucial contributions from its rookies as well. Freshman setter Kristin Sellers, who was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week this past Monday, has tallied 422 assists in 10 games this year, the most in the Ancient Eight.

“Brown is a scrappy team that always gives us a good match,” captain and libero Kate Swanson ’19 said. “We are going to have to show up and expect to play through every point.”

Last year’s Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-Ivy selection, Swanson and her leadership will be important in ensuring a Bulldog win on Saturday. The captain paced the Ivy League in digs per set during conference play (5.43) last year. She has continued to meet that high standard so far this season, with an average of 4.81 through nine games.

Her experience has been complemented by the breakout of first-year outside hitter Ellis DeJardin ’22. DeJardin received Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors over Labor Day for her performances in the Battle for Connecticut. Heading into Saturday’s game, she leads the Bulldogs in kills with 81.

Other major veteran contributors like outside hitters Gray Malias ’19 and Kelley Wirth ’19 and setter Frances Arnautou ’20 will join Swanson in establishing the tone for Yale’s performance as conference play begins. Wirth and Swanson were both named to the all-tournament team at Central Florida last weekend, while Arnautou’s 10.25 assists per set currently ranks third among Ivy League players.

“Our focus this year is all on ourselves,” Wirth said. “If we execute on our side of the net and play our best, then we should be able to take care of business. We are looking to emphasize every single play, every single point and every single touch and make sure that we are focused and consistent for each rep.”

Following Saturday’s matchup at the Pizzitola Sports Center in Providence, Brown and Yale will meet again in New Haven on Saturday, Oct. 20.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu