Photos of every Harvard women’s volleyball team since 1983 hang in the stairwell of the Malkin Athletic Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Storied as the university and its 42 varsity sports programs are, none of those women’s volleyball teams ever achieved what this year’s squad did with a 3-1 win over Princeton in the Ivy League playoff match Friday night. With that 20-25, 25-15, 25-21, 25-23 victory, the 2015 Crimson squad became the first in program history to earn a bid into the NCAA tournament.
The moment loomed particularly large for head coach Jennifer Weiss, who is in her 23rd season at the helm of the Crimson program. Weiss has mentored seven Ivy League Rookies of the Year, was named Ivy League Coach of the Year in 2014, and her teams have claimed a share of the Ivy League championship in 2004 and 2014, but until this year, she has never taken a team to the NCAA tournament.
The thing that’s most rewarding is that the senior class and Corrie [Corinne Bain], the junior, have been so invested for the last couple years and really buying into the routine and the system, said Weiss. It makes it that much more special when you know that theyre fighting for it. They worked hard all week. There was no thinking about tomorrow, which is the big Harvard-Yale homecoming thing. They focused on Princeton.
In regular-season competition, Harvard and Princeton split, with each team winning in straight sets on its home court. Princeton’s dynamic duo of outside hitter Cara Mattaliano and opposite Kendall Peterkin put away 16 and 15 kills, respectively, last time the two teams went head to head on October 31 in New Jersey.
In the Ivy League playoff, however, Harvard held Peterkin to only eight kills in 25 swings, while Mattaliano carried most of the load for the Tigers, accumulating 22 kills in 54 attempts, with setter Claire Nussbaum relying on her to take swings from the front and back row. Middle blocker Nnenna Ibe was the Tigers next-best offensive option, collecting 11 kills to add to three solo blocks and two block assists.
At the outset of the match, Harvard struggled to get into a rhythm. The team’s serve receive was shaky, with Princeton putting away three aces in the first set. The Crimson’s attacking, too, was weak, and they collected seven of their 19 total attack errors in that first set, helping Princeton to walk away with the 25-20 victory.
Harvard regained its composure in set two, however, leading from 2-1 on and holding Princeton to a .091 hitting percentage.
Set three looked to be anyone’s to claim, with Princetonwhich leads the all-time series between the two squads 49-13tying the match at 4s, 5s, 6s, 8s, and 9s after going down 0-3 to start the set.
Mid-set, Princeton surged ahead from tied at 9s to a 13-9 lead. Then, Harvard’s junior setter/opposite Bain, who is the first three-time All-Ivy selection in Harvard women’s volleyball history, entered the zone. She and freshman sensation Christina Cornelius teamed up for a block at 10-13, then Bain went back to serve and tagged a receiver as the Princeton player tried to get out of the way of Bain’s heavy topspin jump serve. When Bain rotated into the front row again, the Crimson had gained a 17-16 lead and she scored five kills to help propel the Crimson to the win.
At a certain point I realize that I just have so much passion for this game, and I play fearless because it’s something that I love to do and I know resorting to my muscle memory is going to get me farther than trying to overthink things, Bain said. When Im able to tap into that, I become confident enough to lead this team.
The Mira Costa product has already written herself into the Harvard record books. With 50 aces in 2013, she holds the Harvard single-season ace record in addition to Ivy League records for triple-doubles and double-doubles. In the playoff match versus Princeton, she collected her seventh triple-double of the season with 15 kills, 18 assists, and 14 digs.
Corrie is just awesome. Unbelievable. So deserving of so many things, said Weiss. She works hard every day. She comes in and she wants to get better every day. I feel blessed and fortunate to get to coach her.
The Crimson have also relied heavily on contributions from freshman middle Cornelius. The Los Angeles native earned the 2015 Ivy League Rookie of the Year honor and is a big reason the Crimson are ranked ninth in the country as a team in blocks per set. Individually, Cornelius ranks fourth nationally with 1.56 blocks per set.
Christina is fabulous. She is a very solid, very good volleyball player, said Weiss. She comes in with all this brilliant talent, but yet fits and respects everybody and I just think she’s going to do so well in the Harvard community.
The impact Cornelius has had on the Crimson squad as a freshman is matched in recent history only by Bain’s 2013 rookie season, and Bain admits this gives the two California athletes a special bond.
I was with her on her recruiting trips and I knew she would be such an amazing addition to this team, said the junior setter. It’s so rewarding for me to see someone like that who is also a rock on the team and knows how to perform under pressure. I trust her as much as I would if she was a senior. It’s an incredible relationship that we have.
Speaking of seniors, Harvard has four: libero Sindhu Vegesena who ranks second in the conference in digs per set, captain middle blocker Caroline Holte, setter Hannah Schmidt, and outside hitter Kathleen Wallace. Wallace has shouldered the majority of the Crimson’s offensive load since a back injury sidelined junior outside hitter Grace Weghorst earlier in the season. Though Wallace had been an impact player in her previous three years with the program, this season marks a clear acceleration in her effortsshe leads the team with 215 kills, hitting .291 (compared to a total of 164 kills at a .170 percentage in 2014).
Since their regular season schedule concludes so much earlier than most of the other conferences in Division I women’s volleyball, the Crimson will take a short break, spend Thanksgiving with their families, and gather again on Sunday, November 29, to find out who they will face in their first-ever NCAA tournament match.
Last year, Yale represented the Ivy League in the tournament after tying Harvard for the regular season conference championship and defeating the Crimson in a playoff. The Bulldogs met No. 11-seeded Arizona in the first round and lost in straight sets. The last Ivy team to make it past the first round was Penn in 2009. That year, the Quakers defeated Army but then met the Penn State buzzsaw in the second round. No Ivy team has ever advanced to the round of 16.
Weiss, for one, thinks this year’s team is special.
[This team is] energetic, but definitely determined, she said. Their chemistry is what they focus on and that really helps them. If we make an adjustment in the scout, theyll adjust. They feel like theyre well-trained and they trust their training, so they really can just focus on performing.
No doubt the selection committee will pit the Crimson against a formidable first round foe and that ability to perform will be put to the test. But until they find out who that opponent will be, the Crimson can revel in their historic victory.