Heading into the 2021 season, expectations were high for the Yale volleyball team, a powerhouse squad in the Ivy League. As the reigning conference champions, having won three consecutive titles in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the Elis were viewed as favorites in the league’s official preseason poll, where they received 10 of 16 first-place votes.

Though Yale had achieved much success in the past, the program began to reach new heights under the leadership of Erin Appleman, who came to Yale in 2003. Now the winningest coach in Yale volleyball history, Appleman has guided the Bulldogs to ten conference titles, seven NCAA Tournament appearances and four seasons with more than 20 wins each.

The Bulldogs had a solid 2021 fall season with a 16–7 overall record and nine conference wins. However, they were unable to clinch their fourth consecutive Ivy League championship and ranked third in the conference behind Brown and Princeton. Though last season marked the seventeenth consecutive year that Yale volleyball had achieved a top three finish in the league, players voiced even more intense ambitions for 2022.

“This was definitely a rebuilding year for our team,” star libero Maile Somera ’24 said to the News at the end of last season. “COVID kind of switched up the dynamics a lot. It was a fun year and I think everyone was really grateful to be back and compete … but honestly, I don’t think anyone’s satisfied. I think a third place finish for us is a big motivator to just work hard in the spring, really go to the gym over the summer and then come back to take the title again.”

The Blue and White had a strong start last fall with stellar performances in non-conference tournaments. The squad had a triumphant opening weekend in early September at home, where the Elis won the Yale Invitational with victories against Hartford and Quinnipiac in straight sets. 

The team then proceeded to win five of its next six matches. The Bulldogs swept the Stony Brook Invitational and had a dominant showing at the UConn Challenge. This success effectively boosted the squad’s morale ahead of the highly-anticipated conference opener against Brown on September 24.

“Our goal is always, of course, to be Ivy champs,” captain and outside hitter Ellis DeJardin ’22 told the News. “But because we don’t know the makeup of other schools, since it’s been a year and a half since we’ve competed against [them], it’s definitely going to be a level up of competition from what we’re used to. But we’re looking forward to competing at a high level.”

DeJardin’s words proved to be relevant in regards to Brown. Despite finishing the 2018 and 2019 seasons in sixth and fourth place respectively, the Bears would head into 2021 with renewed vigor. Brown had the fewest losses in a season in program history last year and achieved its first 20-win season since 1998.

The opening match of conference play was a clash of titans. Yale demonstrated its offensive and defensive prowess in a fierce five-set thriller against Brown, especially with outstanding individual performances from its sophomore players. After starting off strong with a 25–19 first set, the Blue and White lost the next two sets 25–21 and 26–18. The Bulldogs then bounced back 25–16 to extend the match, but narrowly fell to the Bears 15–13 in the final set.

“It was a really good and competitive game against Brown on both sides of the court,” outside hitter Mila Yarich ’25 wrote to the News. “Both teams had some unbelievable plays throughout the match. It was a tough loss that came down to a couple of points at the end of the set, but luckily there will be more opportunities for redemption to come.”

The 2021-2022 Yale volleyball team poses together. (Photo: Yale Volleyball)

Yale bounced back in resounding fashion the next weekend, which saw the squad complete a double Ivy sweep against Columbia and Cornell. The Bulldogs then lost against Harvard in another closely-matched five-set match-up, but recovered once more to defeat Dartmouth in four sets the following day.

After a loss to Princeton, the Elis entered a three-week victorious stretch that began in mid-October and ended in early November. Yale had a dominant 3–1 win against Penn, achieved yet another brilliant double Ivy sweep against Cornell and Columbia, and avenged their loss to Brown with a 3–2 win.

“[The team continues] to improve,” Appleman said to the News then. “We felt comfortable and in control. Where we place now is in our hands, so we just have to take care of business and look at things one game at a time.”

Unfortunately, with subsequent losses against Princeton and Dartmouth, Yale was unable to stand at the top of the Ivy rankings. The Bulldogs nevertheless finished the regular season strong with a 3–2 win against the Crimson. Last year, the Elis also led the conference in ace serves with 159, while remaining in the top three for kills and hitting percentage. 

The team had strong individual performances from its upperclassmen and saw its first-year stars flourish last season. Outside hitter Yarich and setter Carly Diehl ’25 were named Ivy League Rookies of the Week, while outside hitter Kathryn Attar ’22 was named an Honorable Mention All-Ivy player. Outside hitter Tiffany Pedersen-Henry ’23 and middle blocker Fatima Samb ’25 were recognized in the Honor Roll.  

“We had some missed opportunities along the way,” Appleman said after the conclusion of the 2021 season. “We were very young and hopefully we can not be young next season. Overall, we learned a lot and we’re just going to continue to get better. I am really proud of the effort we put out there.”

In 2021, the Elis had to face a variety of obstacles. The greatest of these challenges was the task of integrating the classes of 2024 and 2025, which had yet to compete at the collegiate level due to the COVID-19 pandemic, into the team. Entering the 2022 season, the Bulldogs will look to combine their gained experience, diverse skill sets, strong team chemistry and dominance at the serving line in pursuit of excellence and another top finish in the Ivy League standings.

The incoming first-year class, composed of four talented newcomers, will also look to contribute to the winning ways of Yale volleyball. The towering presence and defensive ability of Chidera Chukwumerije ’26, a 6-foot-2 middle blocker from Atlanta, Georgia, will prove to be a major threat to opponents. Halle Sherlock ’26, a 5-foot-10 setter and 2021 Under Armour All-American from Texas, brings demonstrated leadership and sharp play-making vision to the squad. Two Floridians, 5-foot-11 outside hitter Isabella Mendoza ’26 and 6-foot-1 opposite hitter Lauren Kellen ’26, will add further dynamism to the Bulldogs’ explosive offense. 

“A goal every year is obviously to win,” Somera said to the News. “I think [2021] taught our team that we need to find a way to come together cohesively and play aggressively in every game we have regardless of who we are playing with … to just play Yale volleyball.”

Setter Renee Shultz ’23 will succeed DeJardin as team captain. The six-foot rising senior from Glenmoore, Pennsylvania, has appeared in 144 sets for the Bulldogs and was elected to lead the squad following a team vote.

Wei-Ting Shih covers baseball, volleyball and women's basketball as a staff reporter. Originally from Taiwan and Nicaragua, she is a sophomore in Grace Hopper College double-majoring in Ethics, Politics & Economics and History.