Courtesy of Steve Musco

Three weeks ago, the Yale volleyball team finished its season at John J. Lee Amphitheater by winning the outright conference title and the Ivy League’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. On Friday, the Bulldogs return to the court — this time in University Park, Pennsylvania — to face off against Syracuse.

The Elis’ participation in this year’s Big Dance marks the program’s seventh NCAA appearance. But for every Bulldog on the team’s current roster, this will be her first time at the national tournament. For Syracuse (18–8, 14–4 ACC), Friday’s game marks the Orange’s NCAA Tournament debut. Both teams enter the tournament unranked, but Yale (19–4, 13–1 Ivy) owns the momentum of a near-perfect season. The Bulldogs not only claimed their seventh conference crown in the last nine years but also maintained an ongoing 11-match winning streak. On the other side of the net, Syracuse finished fourth in the ACC but has won six of its last seven games.

“We feel prepared and confident in what we need to do,” setter Franny Arnautou ’20 said. “But most of all, I think we’re all aware that … we have to play fired up, confident and with lots of energy. When you’re in a field of the best 64 teams in the country, you have to go take what you want.”

Friday’s match will be the fourth all-time meeting between the Bulldogs and the Orange. Though Syracuse has won its three previous games against Yale, the teams are evenly matched in nearly every statistical category this year. Both programs post hitting percentages are above .200: The Orange has a slight lead at .252 to the Elis’ .216. Leading the charge for Syracuse is Polina Shemanova, ACC Freshman of the year, who recorded an impressive average of 4.25 kills per set in the regular season.

Syracuse’s ultimate advantage lies in its contingent of towering blockers in the front row. Ranked second in the country in blocks, the team averages 3.1 per set. Three-quarters of the roster stand at six feet or taller: Among the Orange’s blockers are 6-foot-4 middle blocker Amber Witherspoon and 6-foot middle blocker Santita Ebangwese, who average 1.53 and 1.33 blocks per frame, respectively.

“They’ve got some big, giant people, even for volleyball standards,” associate head coach Kevin Laseau said. “So that’s a definite strength of theirs. Our game plan is just to be completely aggressive and go for it on offense. If you let a block … dictate what you do, you get tentative, and you become predictable. We’re looking at it as, ‘Let the fur fly.’ Let’s get out there and mix it up, and not worry about the block.”

During the game the Bulldogs will also look to capitalize on their stalwart defensive backline and aggressive serving — trademark strengths of the Yale program. Yale averages 16.64 digs per set, beating out Syracuse’s 13.7 digs per frame. Moreover, the Bulldogs are ranked eighth in the nation in opponent hitting percentage, holding competition to a meager .153 efficiency on average. As the top-ranked team in the Ivy League at the service line, the Elis also overshadow the Orange in aces per frame.

Moreover, the Elis have a remarkably deep and versatile roster. In the back row, captain and Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Kate Swanson ’19, who plays as the libero, leads the team with an outstanding 4.95 digs per set. Additionally, with an average of 10.69 assists per frame, Arnautou was named Ivy Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Yale has benefited from the contributions of standout outside hitter Ellis DeJardin ’22, who earned the league’s Rookie of the Year accolade. In the first year of her collegiate career, DeJardin notched 227 kills — more than any other Bulldog this season.

“The level of intensity has ramped up, simply because it’s the NCAA tournament,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “It’s one and done. If you don’t perform where you need to, you’ll be going home. … We’ve done some things in practice to hopefully prepare us a little better for the quicker speed of the ball coming our way … [Syracuse’s players] are big blockers and big hitters, so we’ve been working on defense and coverage.”

The star leadership of both programs will be on full display at Rec Hall. Under Appleman’s leadership, the Bulldogs have claimed the Ancient Eight title on nine occasions. Before coming to Yale, Appleman served as assistant coach at Penn State for eight years. This season, she was named the 2018 Ivy League Coach of the Year.

At the helm of Syracuse is head coach Leonid Yelin, who ranks 26th in Division I in victories. Though Yelin will be leading the Orange to the program’s first Big Dance, the head coach is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament. Yelin led Louisville to 14 NCAA appearances before heading to upstate New York. This year, Syracuse defeated Louisville in five sets.

“Our coach kept saying that this week … is a sprint, and it’s been so true,” said DeJardin. “We’ve had some intense practices, and we’ve been watching video on Syracuse to familiarize ourselves with how they play. … I think that because this week has already been so action-packed, we are so ready and excited to finally get to play on Friday and represent Yale in the tournament.”

Yale has enjoyed more success in the NCAA Tournament than any other Ivy program. Just two Ancient Eight teams have ever won a game in the first round, while Yale has accomplished the feat twice: in 2004 against Albany and in 2008 against Ohio.

After Friday’s matchup, the winner will move on in the tournament to play the winner of the Penn State–Howard match on Saturday. Playing at home, the Nittany Lions (23–7, 14–6 Big Ten) are seeded No. 8 overall at the Big Dance, while Howard (16–16, 9–3 MEAC), is unseeded after earning its conference’s automatic berth.

“The team is ready to get back onto the court and compete,” Swanson said. “We need to show up confidently and not be afraid to go for it, and we are ready.”

The game against Syracuse starts at 5 p.m. at Penn State’s Rec Hall. Viewers can also watch the match online for free through BTN2Go.

Ruiyan Wang | ruiyan.wang@yale.edu