After earning the Yale volleyball program’s fifth trip to the NCAA tournament in the past 10 seasons, the Elis’ remarkable 2018 campaign came to a close on Friday when they lost to Syracuse in the first round of the Big Dance. The Bulldogs finished their season with a perfect record at home, and the team lost just one conference match.
The Bulldogs’ journey to University Park, Pennsylvania, kicked off on Wednesday, as the Elis were greeted by dozens of Yale administrators, coaches and fans eager to give the Bulldogs a cheerful send-off. After a day of practice on Thursday, the Elis hit the historic Penn State Rec Hall court confident in their chances against Syracuse — whose trip to the NCAA tournament marked its first in program history. Despite its lack of tournament experience, the Orange capitalized on its height advantage over Yale to take the match in straight sets.
“Overall, it was an incredible experience to go back to the NCAAs,” Yale head coach Erin Appleman said. “I’m so proud of the seniors and their leadership that got us here, and I’m hoping that in the next couple years, we make a return trip. I think the overall experience of being there, and being able to experience what it’s like to play at the next level was pretty cool.”
The first set of the match quickly gave fans a taste of each team’s confidence and competitive spirit. Eager to challenge each other at the net, both Yale and Syracuse looked to utilize several hitting options early on to expose weaknesses in their respective opposing defensive units. The Orange specifically looked to create opportunities for 6-foot-4-inch middle blocker Amber Witherspoon in order to exploit height mismatches against Yale’s blockers. Witherspoon posted five kills in the first frame and added two blocks as well.
Despite the Orange’s power at the net, the Bulldogs never let the set slip away from them. The Elis looked to keep Syracuse’s blockers moving in order to capitalize on potential one-on-one opportunities on the outside. Outside hitter Kelley Wirth ’19 led Yale’s offensive charge in the first set, posting six kills in the frame. The senior went on to finish with 11 kills for the match, surpassing the 900-kill career milestone during the game. Wirth’s contributions were ultimately not enough to put the Bulldogs over the top in the first set, though, as Syracuse took the frame by a three-point margin. Still, Yale’s coaches told the News that they were proud of the Elis’ early effort.
“I was very happy with the way we approached the match,” Yale associate head coach Kevin Laseau said. “We went right at Syracuse like they were any other team. Even though none of the people on our team had ever played in the NCAA tournament, that didn’t faze them at all. They went after [Syracuse] aggressively and smartly. We executed our game plan.”
Going into the second set, the Bulldogs remained poised, confident and aggressive with their attack. The Elis jumped out to a 12–7 advantage to open the frame, prompting a Syracuse timeout. But even after the Orange regrouped, Yale maintained its lead by continuing to effectively utilize several different weapons. In the second frame alone, five Yale attackers posted at least one kill. Middle blocker Izzy Simqu ’20 was especially impressive in the set, notching four kills and two key blocks.
The tide began to turn in the Orange’s favor after a kill from Syracuse middle blocker Santita Ebangwese narrowed Yale’s lead to just 18–15. With rookie outside hitter Polina Shemanova at the service line, the Orange began to chip away at its deficit and tied the game 18–18. Following a Yale timeout, Shemanova remained unfazed and brought Syracuse ahead 22–18 before a kill from Yale middle blocker Samantha Bray ’22 halted the run. The Elis were never able to recover enough momentum to pull ahead again, and Yale dropped the second frame by another close scoreline of 21–25.
“The better the team you’re playing, the smaller the margin of error,” Laseau said. “We had a lot of chances in the match, but a slip-up here or there can make all the difference. We were leading in set two, but then a couple things didn’t go our way, and the next thing you know they ran up four points.”
In the final frame of the match, the Bulldogs struggled to launch a productive offense, in part due to unforced errors at the net and at the service line. The Elis recorded nine unforced errors, including three blocked swings, while the Orange had four during the set. Despite another five kills from Simqu, who contributed 13 kills overall, Yale never established a lead against Syracuse. With the help of three four-point runs, the Orange sealed the deal, taking the frame 25–16 and moving on to the next round of the NCAA Tournament.
“We practiced hard over Thanksgiving break and put our all into the game,” said libero Yurika Boyd ’21. “Overall, I think that we should be proud of how our season went. We will be working hard this spring and summer to get better.”
Although the Elis did not make it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Yale’s performance nevertheless testified to the team’s versatility and resilience. Despite facing Syracuse — the nation’s second-ranked team in blocks, middle blockers Simqu and Bray hit at .423 and .471 efficiencies, respectively.
Yale’s stalwart backrow was also on full display. Captain and libero Kate Swanson ’19 recorded 12 digs in the final game of her collegiate career, during which she collected 1,503 digs. Three other Bulldogs recorded at least eight digs for the match.
“This weekend was not the result we wanted, but I am still so, so proud of everything this team has accomplished,” Swanson said. “We always worked to get better this season, always stayed competitive, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of girls or coaching staff to finish off my volleyball career with. I’m very excited to see what this group will accomplish next year.”
Sixteen teams remain in the NCAA tournament, with regional semifinals and finals set for this weekend.
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