Harvard is going to fourth-seeded Nebraska, which means it would have to pull off the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA volleyball tournament to advance. But that has hardly put a damper on the Crimson making it to postseason play for the first time:
Neither 23rd-year head coach Jennifer Weiss nor any Harvard volleyball player since the founding of the program in 1981 has ever played in the NCAA tournament. All that has changed, thanks to a big win for the Crimson in the Ivy League playoff over Princeton.
Only a week before that playoff match, Harvard had the regular season title within its grasp—along with the league’s single national tournament berth. But a loss to Yale on November 13 gave Princeton the opportunity to tie the Crimson’s conference record as the Tigers finished up the regular season with wins over Cornell and Columbia. Harvard and Princeton both finished the conference season with 10-4 records, forcing an Ivy League playoff for the second consecutive season.
Last November, Harvard tied Yale for a share of the regular season title and was devastated by a 0-3 loss in the playoff match.
This season, the team’s leaders, setters Corinne Bain and Hannah Schmidt, outside hitter Kathleen Wallace, middle Caroline Holte, and libero Sindhu Vegesena were a year older, wiser, and more experienced. Freshman middle Christina Cornelius made an immediate impact as well, ranking fifth in the nation in blocks per set.
Even still, against Princeton in the playoff, the Crimson started off slow. Shanks and overpasses plagued their serve receive and Princeton’s offensive leaders Cara Mattaliano and Kendall Peterkin challenged the Harvard defense, dropping bombs from both pins. The first set went the Tigers’ way 25-20.
Luckily for the Crimson, the challenges of juggling academics and athletics at Harvard have made them nothing if not determined, and they were able to rally, taking the next three sets and the match, thanks in large part to contributions from setter/opposite Bain.
The junior from Manhattan Beach, Calif., who this year became the only three-time first-team All-Ivy recipient in the Crimson program history, led the team with 15 kills, and with 14 digs came within one of tying libero Vegesena for the most digs in the match.
After the 20-25, 25-15, 25-21, 25-23 victory, Bain said she was speechless.
“We’ve worked so hard to get to this point, and we just made history, so it’s a huge moment for us,” she said.
Though Weiss expressed enthusiasm and praise for Bain’s performance in the playoff, she admitted that it was nothing out of the ordinary for the psychology major, who Weiss called “awesome” and “unbelievable.”
Freshman Cornelius earned the Ivy League’s Rookie of the Year honor and in the playoff match hit .500 with nine kills. On the year, she leads the Crimson with a .349 hitting percentage and also ranks No. 1 on the team, and in the conference, with 1.57 blocks per set.
Earlier in the year, junior outside hitter Grace Weghorst—who ranked third on the team in kills in 2014—had to be sidelined with a back injury. Wallace and sophomore Ohio native Paige Kebe played the remainder of the season on the outside, with Wallace stepping up to have her best season ever. The 5-8 senior from San Francisco ranks second on the team with 215 kills, hitting .219. For comparison, Wallace put up 164 kills and hit .170 last season.
No team from the Ivy League has ever made it to the round of 16. But no matter what happens at Nebraska, this has been a huge accomplishment for Harvard.
(Thanks for Harvard Athletics/Gil Talbot for the photos).