MIT, traditionally competitive with Harvard in academics and prestige, also proved itself to be a worthy opponent on the volleyball court last night.
The Harvard men's volleyball team survived a lackluster performance and heckling fans to edge the Engineers (5-6, 1-3 EIVA) in five games (11-15, 15-12, 5-15, 15-3, 15-13), maintaining a perfect league record.
During warm-ups in MIT's Dupont Gymnasium, the Crimson (5-1, 3-0) appeared well rested and ready to play. Pre-game serving was crisp and automatic, passes were accurate and Harvard ran its set plays to perfection.
As the first game began, this steady execution continued. The Crimson rolled to an early 5-1 lead behind solid kills from co-captain Ed Pankau and junior outside hitter Brian Stevenson.
The two familiar demons for the Crimson this year, service errors and skimpy floor defense, unraveled Harvard's lead as MIT surged ahead to a 6-5 lead.
As opposed to their last match against Eastern Mennonite University, in which the Crimson had a season-high .921 serving percentage, Harvard had six service errors in the first game. Harvard Coach Tom Wilson called a time out to regroup his players, but the MIT onslaught continued.
After MIT extended its lead to 11-8, the Engineers turned up their defensive intensity and stifled the Crimson attack.
"MIT played excellent floor defense early on, which frustrated our outside hitters and disrupted out offensive rhythm," Wilson said.
Despite Harvard's attempts to climb back into game with kills by Pankau and senior outside hitter Joe Herger, MIT held on for a 15-11 victory.
MIT's surprising win energized the fans, who began shouting obscenities and taunts at the Crimson as the second game began. In particular, the raucous fans singled out junior libero Auden Velasquez for ridicule.
"The fans didn't bother me too much," Velasquez said, "In fact, their silliness motivated me to play harder."
Harvard played harder in the second game, buoyed by the massive offensive and defensive contributions by Herger.
"Herger kept his cool despite the fans and he came up with big digs and phenomenal kills," Pankau said.
Behind Herger's eight kills and eight digs in the second game, the Crimson emerged from the second game with a 15-12 win.
As the third game began, the Crimson were again welcomed onto the court by the rowdy MIT fans.
MIT jumped out to an early 4-0 lead with two aces from freshman Kai McDonald. The Engineers capitalized on Harvard's sloppy defensive play and repeatedly pounded the ball down the middle of the court.
Compounding Harvard's defensive woes was its faltering offensive firepower. Freshman setter Mike Bookman, who is responsible for running Harvard's attack, only had seven assists in the third game. By contrast, he had 15 assists in each of the first two games and is averaging 14.5 assists a game for the season.
Harvard's lackadaisical offensive
and shaky defense opened the door for MIT, and the Engineers easily stole the third game, 15-5.
Down 2-1 in the match, Harvard remained calm and focused for the pivotal fourth game.
"After being beaten badly in the third game, we could have folded up and died," Bookman said, "Instead, no one panicked, and we were able to turn it around."
A big factor in Harvard's fourth game resurgence was the improved play of its usual offensive weapons.
Brian Stevenson, who had a poor match for the first three games, stepped up for Harvard and had seven kills in the fourth game. He led the team with 24 kills on the night.
Sophomore middle blocker Justin Denham had four kills in crucial situations throughout the game.
Another element that fueled the fourth-game rally was improved serving. The Crimson did not miss a serve in the fourth or fifth game.
Harvard's 15-3 drubbing of MIT set the stage for a deciding fifth game.
The tension of the fifth game was visible on the faces of all the players. As sideout after sideout went by, the score inched upwards with Harvard and MIT trading the lead.
A thunderous kill by Denham tied the game at 11 and Harvard called a time out.
"JD [Justin Denham] came into the timeout all fired up and gave a rousing motivational speech," Pankau said "He really pushed us to finish MIT off."
Denham's rallying speech apparently had a direct impact on the Crimson's defense. Blocks by junior co-captain Justin Micomonaco, Herger, and Denham allowed the Crimson to defeat the Engineers 15-13 in the final game.
"The key was our blocking in game five," Wilson said, "I was impressed by the resolve and grit of the team as we fought back to win."
Harvard's win last night preserves its perfect record in league play. Last year, the Crimson finished 1-6 in the EIVA.
"This is definitely the best team in the four years that I have been here," said Pankau, "I'm really looking forward to the rest of this season."
Harvard will look to remain undefeated in league play as it travels to Columbia Union and Eastern Mennonite this weekend.