The non-conference schedule for an NCAA volleyball team can be crafted to resemble a nice, comfortable chair, with extra cushions and an ottoman that pops up in recline mode.
For Erin Appleman and the Yale Bulldogs, the early slate for 2017 felt more like fitting into an elementary school desk, bonking knees and elbows and fighting to get the backrest right.
Discomfort was the goal when Appleman assembled the plan, looking to see if the Bulldogs could respond positively when facing the stellar athletic firepower of teams like USC, Penn State and Arkansas. Yale has emerged wiser for the experience and will take a 6-3 record into the start of Ivy League play this weekend.
Yale opens conference play with five home matches, starting Friday against Brown (5-6). The Bulldogs are then off a full week before playing host to Princeton.
Also in the pre-conference, Yale pulled off a three-set sweep of Wake Forest, which is packed with strong hitters topping well over 6 feet, and the Bulldogs also swept UC Santa Barbara and Ohio.
“Everyone was giving me a hard time a month ago when I said we might start out 1-8. Our schedule was pretty tough. It was really good to play against bigger, stronger athletes, and there were teams we had success against that had that,” said Appleman, who has guided Yale to seven Ivy League championships in her 14 years at the school in New Haven, Connecticut.
“That helped our team develop, and in facing some of those teams, our athletes did a nice job of just going for it. They got the confidence that will help us through the conference.”
The Bulldogs are coming off a 19-5 season in 2016 and certainly boast a roster that can threaten defending league-champion Princeton and others in the next several weeks. Appleman has combed through the rosters of top club teams in California (Sunshine, Coast, Wave, Tstreet, Vision), Texas (Mad Frog, Houston Skyline) and Florida (OVA) to build a reliably strong program, one that won five straight Ivy League crowns from 2010-14.
One concern for 2017 was replacing the offensive prowess of Brittani Steinberg, a first-team all-Ivy League selection. The task is being spread around the lineup, with junior outside hitter Kelley Wirth doing a solid job when asked to lead and hitting .302 so far this season. One of the most talented players to reach campus in recent years, sophomore setter Franny Arnautou, has merged her talents gracefully with two-year starter Kelsey Crawford, and that’s giving Yale some lock-down excellence at a key position.
“I was concerned for about a day. Franny happens to be one of the best teammates we have. She’s a super competitor, but the setters work hard making each other better,” Appleman said. “She’s a gifted athlete, played on some national teams and in high-performance programs along the way, but she’s one of the best teammates I could find in someone, and for a setter that’s a great skill to have.”
For any coach to have an extended run in the Ivy League, he or she must cope with the pressures and expectations that emanate from the classroom. And with no athletic scholarships to entice, Appleman has to do her best to develop players while knowing they could up and leave anytime for a scholarship offer somewhere else. But the right kids usually find their way to Yale and that’s what keeps Appleman at her post.
“We have to recruit strong academic kids. That’s the starting point. It’s one of the main reasons I’m here and love working at Yale, is because of the student-athletes and their determination,” she said.
“Every one of them wants to be really good at everything they do. They want the extra work, watch more video, get extra passing reps. It’s so refreshing to see that as I get older, these younger kids are still striving to get better. It’s a joy to come into work every day.”
With eight years of history as an assistant coach at Penn State preceding her days at Yale, Appleman has gained a real thirst for the top of the standings, and she admits there’s a steady burn in her thoughts regarding Princeton’s two-year claim on the league title. The margin has been tight: In 2015 the Bulldogs were sent askew because of injuries and the 2016 team was primarily driven by underclassmen who may not have been ready for that next step.
Humble but hungry, Yale is looking to restore order.
“You don’t go into it thinking, ‘I want to win five (league titles) in a row.’ The third one, I wasn’t even thinking about it and I was talking to my mom, and she said, ‘Hey, that’s three in a row!’ and I’m, like, what?” Appleman said with a laugh. “Honestly, my goal is to be the most improved team every year, because then I know I’m doing what I should be doing. But there is a fire under us.
“What makes a program successful is not being high and low, not having that mountain and valleys approach. It’s about us being more mature and sustaining against good runs that other teams make. We do have to get better on the road, and that’s why we played some tough teams on the road (in non-conference). We wanted to have some adversity to overcome and still be able to perform.”