When the Yale volleyball team entered the final weekend of Ivy play last year, securing a share of the 2017 conference title required a Bulldog victory and a bit of luck. The Elis only became Ancient Eight co-champions after they snagged a five-set win against Columbia and rival Princeton dropped its match against Dartmouth in an upset. One year later, the script is flipped. With two games remaining in Ivy League play, the Elis hold a one-game advantage over the Tigers and can secure the title outright with a pair of victories.
Riding a nine-game conference win streak, the Bulldogs (17–4, 11–1 Ivy) will launch into matches vs. Cornell (13–9, 8–4 Ivy) and Columbia (10–12, 4–8 Ivy) this Saturday and Sunday at home. The last time the Elis faced their New York cohorts in early October, Yale downed the Lions in three sets and defeated the Big Red in four. Although the Bulldogs are just one win away from defending their crown, they remain concentrated on taking their upcoming games one point at a time.
“Right now, the team is feeling extremely focused,” outside hitter Kathryn Attar ’21 said. “Each game is becoming more important than the last, and that is apparent in the way we play both in practice and in games. We know what we need to do, and we’re putting our all into it.”
Throughout the season, the Big Red has proven itself to be one of the most well-rounded units in the conference, despite suffering key losses that eliminated Cornell from title contention. In their first match of the weekend, the Elis take on Big Red power hitters Carla Sganderlla and Samanta Arenas — who both rank among the top 10 in the Ancient Eight in kills per set.
Third-place Cornell also boasts some of the conference’s best defensive weapons. Libero Lily Barber ranks third in the Ivy League for digs per set, while middle blocker Jada Stackhouse stands sixth in blocks per set.
In their first contest against the Big Red this season, the Bulldogs relied on stellar blocking and tough serving to pull out the win. Middle blocker Chiara Spain ’21 played a significant role in the victory, as the California native secured six blocks and hit with a remarkable .562 efficiency.
“Cornell is disciplined and plays good position defense. So we know we’re going to have to be patient. We’re still going to take our swings and crack the ball, and if it comes back we’ll just have to go back to work,” associate head coach Kevin Laseau said. “They’ve also got hitters that can really put the ball away, so that’s where our serving comes in. We have to be good on the serving so that we can limit their options.”
In their previous match against Cornell, the Elis rebounded after a disappointing third set to secure the game in the fourth frame. In that set, 10 errors and a dismal -.061 hitting efficiency plagued the Elis, culminating in a 25–13 loss. On Friday, the Elis will need to maintain consistent energy and clean play throughout the entirety of the contest to come away with a victory.
The following afternoon, Yale returns to John J. Lee Amphitheater to clash against sixth-ranked Columbia. The Lions have been grappling with the injury of their star offensive player, middle blocker Chichi Ikwuazom, who also sat out for the Elis’ first contest vs. the Light Blue this season. Nevertheless, other Lions have stepped up to fill Ikwuazom’s absence on the court. In particular, outside hitter Emily Teehan has embarked on a standout season. The rookie ranks third in kills per set and second in overall points among all Ancient Eight players.
“[Columbia] has had an injury to arguably one of the best players in the conference, [Chichi Ikwuazom],” said head coach Erin Appleman. “If she’s in, it’s a totally different team. But if she’s not in, they still have done a really good job. Their setter is really offensive, and they’ve done a good job with having a really balanced attack.”
Columbia also has a cohort of strong servers, with three different Lions breaking top five in the Ivy League for aces per set. The game on Saturday will be a showdown between the two strongest conference teams at the serving line this season. Columbia, which averages 1.52 aces per set collectively, is closely tailed by Yale, which averages 1.51 aces per set.
In the first matchup between the Lions and the Bulldogs this season, Yale triumphed in straight sets. Despite a slow start to open the game, the Elis capitalized on offensive aggressiveness and keen decision-making to turn the game around. After securing the opening set by just two points, Yale took the second and third by heftier margins, including a seven-point difference in the final set.
“We still have a lot of things to get better at,” captain and libero Kate Swanson ’19 said. “But I think that is what makes this season so exciting — we are not done, but rather ready to keep getting after it in each practice, using that drive to take us into our final two Ivy games.”
Besides being the Bulldogs’ final game of the conference slate, Saturday’s match against Columbia also marks Senior Night. Yale will be honoring its five senior players: Swanson, Gray Malias ’19, middle blocker Kate Aitkenhead ’19, middle blocker Shreya Dixit ’19 and Kelley Wirth ’19.
“The senior class has done a tremendous job leadership-wise this year,” Laseau said. “So much of how your team operates depends on your senior leadership and how they influence the rest of the team. [Our seniors] have all been on the same page and have all had great contributions this year, as well as all four years. All five of them have done something great for this program.”
The game against Cornell starts at 7 p.m. on Friday in John J. Lee Amphitheater, while Saturday’s tilt against Columbia begins at 5 p.m.
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