In their final weekend of Ivy play, the Yale volleyball team capped off its nearly perfect season by clinching the outright conference title and receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Elis’ 2018 Ivy League title marks the Yale (19–4, 13–1 Ivy) volleyball program’s seventh conference championship in the past nine years, as well as the team’s ninth title under head coach Erin Appleman’s leadership. This season, the Bulldogs dropped only one match and lost just six sets throughout conference play. Despite close competition during both games this weekend, the Elis’ perseverance and disciplined serving helped the team complete a clean sweep of its opponents. Yale defeated both Cornell (14–10, 9–5) and Columbia (10–14, 4–10) in three sets. Now, the Bulldogs eagerly await their placement in the NCAA tournament bracket, which will be announced on Nov. 25.
“At this point we have no idea where we’re going to go, who we’re going to face, but everyone starts off [in the NCAA tournament] at 0–0,” Appleman said. “We have two weeks to practice before we find out who we’re going to play, and this time is kind of like another little preseason. We can focus on things individually that can make us better, and then also do some team stuff to make us better.”
Yale kicked off their championship weekend against a scrappy Cornell group that fought valiantly against the Bulldogs throughout the match. Early on, in the first set, the Big Red proved to be up to the challenge of stunting the host team’s title aspirations. Midway through the frame, the Elis possessed a slim one-point advantage. But the Bulldogs quickly turned the game around, extending their lead to 19–13. During this stretch, outside hitter Kathryn Attar ’21 notched three critical kills, which were crucial to set up Yale to ultimately take the set 25–17.
In the second set, Cornell continued to play with a sense of urgency, threatening an upset. Although the Big Red hit with a lackluster .043 efficiency in the middle frame, it held the Bulldogs to just .107 — capitalizing on steady blocking and nine Yale mistakes. In the final phase of the set, he Big Red led 22–20. But with two kills from outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 and three Cornell attacking errors, the Elis survived to win 25–22. Wirth was incredibly effective for the Bulldogs throughout the match — the senior notched 17 kills and two blocks in the second-to-last home game of her career.
“I’m not sure it was our best volleyball, but it got the job done,” associate head coach Kevin Laseau said of the Cornell match. “We’ve played better, we’ve played cleaner, but with this group, like all year, there was composure. … We were feeling a lot of excitement about what was possible, and this group found a way to get it done.”
The Big Red refused to quit in the third set, and quickly jumped out to a 17–11 advantage. The Elis’ struggles prompted Appleman to use her second timeout of the set to refocus her group. After the break, the Elis hit the court ready to rebound. Setter Renee Shultz ’22, who subbed in halfway through the set, was a pivotal part of the Elis’ comeback. Schultz posted three assists and three service aces during a six-point serving run that put Yale ahead 24–21. The Bulldogs secured victory by a score of 25–23 in the third frame — sealing a share of the conference title at the conclusion of Friday night’s match.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs secured the Ivy League’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament after extending their winning streak to 11 games. Yale hit at or above a .225 efficiency in every frame of the match, while the team also out-blocked the Lions 10–2. In the first frame, the Elis capitalized on Columbia’s nine unforced errors and showed a strong offensive front to take the set 25–20.
“We wanted to win [the championship] outright, and now our fate is set — we’re going to the NCAA’s,” Appleman said. “It’s been in our hands for a couple weeks now, and our players were able to focus for the three or four weeks that we needed to and got the job done.”
The second set of the face-off went well into overtime: The two teams took the frame to 66 points before Yale finally won 34–32. Although the Elis made 12 unforced errors that prolonged the set, several Bulldogs had outstanding performances. Offensive weapons Wirth and Ellis DeJardin ’22 put away nine and eight kills, respectively. The set also featured setter Franny Arnautou ’19 posting 18 assists, a fraction of the 42 assists she collected over the course of the evening.
In the third set, rookie middle blocker Samantha Bray ’22 helped the team put the game away by a hefty 10-point margin at 25–15. Bray notched seven kills in the frame and led the team with a .400 efficiency for the match. The Elis also relied on a strong defense to keep the Lions to a meager .098 hitting percentage in the final frame. Three Bulldogs — libero and captain Kate Swanson ’19, outside hitter Gray Malias ’19 and DeJardin — recorded at least 13 digs each.
“This weekend was an amazing way to finish off Ivy League play with two more wins,” Swanson said. “I am just so, so proud of every single person on our team.”
The evening of the team’s last conference game of the 2018 season also featured Senior Night, in which the Bulldogs recognized the contributions of their five graduating seniors. Wirth, Swanson, Malias, Shreya Dixit ’19 and Kate Aitkenhead ’19 all saw court time during the game. The veteran class has a 43–13 conference record after the win on Saturday.
“Senior night was definitely emotional, but I think one of the things this team does very well is keep composure,” Swanson said. “That for sure showed this weekend. I still think we can play so much better, which is why I am that much more excited to be continuing our season into the NCAA [tournament].”
Yale’s placement in the NCAA Tournament Bracket will be announced on Nov. 25 at 8:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
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