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Yale, in regular-season driver’s seat, hopes to repeat as Ivy tourney champ

Erin Applebaum talks to her Yale team/Yale photos
Erin Applebaum talks to her Yale team/Yale photos

Erin Appleman never cared much for the idea of an Ivy League tournament. The way she saw it, each team played all the others in the league twice — home and away — and that was a fair enough method for deciding who would represent the league in the NCAA Tournament.

But the Ivy League did have a tournament last season for the first time, and Appleman’s Yale Bulldogs won it.

“It was super exciting,” she admitted. “Having experienced it, it was very exciting. It was do-or-die … kind of gave it an NC2A feel.”

And it helped Appleman, now in her 20th season at the helm in New Haven, Connecticut, add to her already sterling resume.

In her previous 19 seasons at Yale, the former Penn State assistant won 11 Ivy League titles and made seven NCAA Tournaments. Twice she has been named the league’s coach of the year, an award that wasn’t bestowed by the Ivy League until 2014.

Yale's Audrey Leak
Yale’s Audrey Leak

After beating Penn in four sets last Saturday — a match that broke Yale’s streak of winning five straight sweeps — Appleman has a career record of 358-130, making her the winningest coach in program history. What’s more, Yale has a commanding three-game lead in the Ivy League with four matches left in the regular season.

Appleman’s journey has been filled with memorable moments. Appleman recalled winning a match late in her second season (2004) that put Yale into the NCAA Tournament and beating Ohio U in the first round of the 2008 tourney.

“It was a match we had no business really winning,” Appleman said about the five-set win over the Bobcats.

With her team down 14-12 in the fifth set, she called timeout and was congratulating them, telling them how wonderful their season had been. Essentially putting a bow on their season.

That turned out to be premature, since the Bulldogs rallied to win the fifth set 17-15.

Winning that match, she said, ranked right up there with winning a national championship in 1999 as a member of Russ Rose’s staff at Penn State. (Coincidentally, Yale was defeated by Penn State after that improbable win over Ohio U, and the Nittany Lions continued marching toward the second of their four consecutive national titles between 2007-10.)

All the memorable wins, Appleman said, are too numerous to mention. What stands out to her the most in her career are the little, individual victories achieved by her players.

“The things I really get excited about is when you have been working with someone – whether it’s a shot or a movement or a dig — and they execute it in a game, and they’re just so happy,” she said. “Those are the moments that I treasure the most, the growth, and then you see them understanding the growth.”

Carly Diehl sets as Gigi Barr approaches
Carly Diehl sets as Gigi Barr approaches

In season 20, Appleman has seen plenty of those little moments. The Bulldogs enter Friday’s match at Dartmouth riding an 11-match winning streak. Yale (15-3, 10-0) leads the Ivy League by three games over Princeton (10-8, 7-3).

Yale returned five all-league players and was favored to repeat as champion. Those veterans have traveled well.

“Things happen on the road,” Appleman said. “You just have to expect the unexpected.”

Perhaps, but Yale is 7-1 away from home, losing only at the Big Ten’s Northwestern in mid-September. In the Ivy, Yale opened with a reverse-sweep home victory over Brown and then swept the Bears in Rhode Island two weeks ago. For that matter, only Princeton and Cornell have also won a set off the Bulldogs.

Yale leads the Ivy League in hitting percentage (.268) and kills per set (13.83) and is tied with Brown and Dartmouth in aces per set (1.80).

The offense is driven by setter Carly Diehl, a 5-foot-11 junior from San Diego who was first-team all-league last season. She ranks second in the league in assists (10.16) and first in aces with 29, same as Brown’s Victoria Vo. And Diehl is not only is adept at setting up the offense, she can generate her own. Though she doesn’t attack regularly, she does it often enough to qualify as No. 3 in the league in hitting percentage (.381).

“She just has so much experience, and she has one of the best IQs as far as setting goes,” said Appleman, a former setter at San Diego State. “There are very few incidents when she sets a player and personally I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish you would have done something different.’ It’s really like, ‘Oh, great choice!’ ”

While Diehl has been a mainstay at setter, Audrey Leak is attacking from a new position. A first-team All-Ivy selection as a right-side hitter last season, the 6-2 senior from New Jersey has moved to the left side this fall.

Leak’s move was prompted by the arrival of freshman right side Betsy Goodenow. Appleman was confident the 6-footer from Kansas could jump in and play on the right side immediately, plus, she reasoned, it would be easier for the more-experienced Leak to switch positions than to have a first-year player shoulder that burden.

“There was a little bit of an adjustment for (Leak),” Appleman said. “But she worked really hard. Just getting the timing and working at everything … it’s been a pretty big adjustment for a senior.

“It took a while for Audrey to believe me.”

Said Leak: “I think a big part of the transition was just getting different sets. A lot of times on the right side, I was a little more in system. On the left side, I’m working more on getting my feet to the ball, working on swinging well on sets that maybe aren’t perfect, working on not always trying to score by keeping the ball in play to make a better shot for my team has definitely been a challenge.”

Leak has responded by putting up 3.24 kills per set and leads the Bulldogs with 178.

Maile Somera
Maile Somera

Versatile Mila Yarich, a 6-0 junior from Tampa, is leaving her fingerprints all over matches. The 2022 Ivy League second-teamer ranks right behind Leak with 160 kills (2.76/set). Yarich is second only to libero Maile Somera (272 digs) with 179. They get their aces, too: Somera is ninth in the Ivy with 19 aces and Yarich right behind with 18.

“Mila has been so great, so steady,” Leak said. “She’s a player who does a little bit of everything for us. She’s really stepped it up this year and really been our stable piece.

“Overall I think Mila has a hand in every play. … She’s always consistent in her role, which really helps us.”

Injuries slowed junior Gigi Barr during her freshman year, and it wasn’t until midway through last season, Appleman said, when the 6-1 middle from Illinois started to blossom. Her improvement landed her an honorable mention on the All-Ivy team. This season, she ranks eighth in the league with a .325 hitting percentage (2.11 kills per set) and contributes 0.72 blocks per set.

Laurece Abraham, a 6-1 middle from Ann Arbor, Mich., also helps the Bulldogs’ hit parade, ranking sixth in the Ivy in hitting (.327) while putting up 1.61 kills per set.

Defensively, 5-9 senior Somera is the linchpin. The product of Barrington, Rhode Island, uses her 5-9 frame and athleticism to cover a lot of ground and ranks second in the league at 4.46 digs per set.

“Maile is a total rock star,” Appleman said. “She’s a phenomenal doubles player. She’s going to leave here and go somewhere and play beach for her fifth year. She’s one of the quickest, most athletic … she’s literally one of the best athletes here at Yale, let alone female.

“I’m so impressed with her leadership ability. She’s a pretty intense player, yet she really cares about her teammates, and she’s the voice on the court.”

After playing at Dartmouth, finishes the regular season at Harvard and then home againset Columbia and Cornell.

“I would like to see us get stronger in our consistency,” Leak said. “I think in some matches each set is different. A different team comes out. I would like us to be strong from start to finish. Right now we’re playing great. I think we’re a great team, and I’d like to see every point exemplify that we’re a great team.

“I’d like to see us not give away points here and there and every set come out with the same energy and be strong from start to finish in a match.”

If the Bulldogs can do that, finishing unbeaten in the Ivy League and defending their tournament crown are well within reach.

For some teams, the unbeaten record and the expectations of being a defending champ might mean added pressure. Appleman doesn’t see it that way.

Having lofty aspirations is something she instituted on Day 1 when she took over the program 20 years ago. The times, the players and the college volleyball landscape might change, but Yale’s mantra never does.

“I think the expectations are always here at Yale,” she said. “We are trying to win a championship every year. I don’t think it matters if we have a new group coming in or an experienced group.

“We don’t talk a lot about winning. I talk about improving. I feel like if we’re getting better, the W’s will take care of themselves.”