Capitalizing on veteran leadership and freshman talent, the Harvard women’s volleyball team opened its season with three consecutive, straight-game victories in the New England Challenge last weekend.
In the Crimson’s season opener Friday night, Harvard (3-0) dispatched Loyola of Maryland, 30-12, 30-16, 30-18. On Saturday, Harvard defeated Colgate (30-14, 30-21, 30-18) and breezed by Lafayette (30-10, 30-6, 30-17) before rowdy home crowds at the Malkin Athletic Center.
“We were pleased with the way we played,” said Harvard Coach Jennifer Weiss. “It’s important to have everyone gel, and watching this tournament from the first match to the third, our chemistry is getting better every game.”
The young squad, which features only three upperclassmen, started two freshmen in each match of the Challenge.
Pernilla Schweitzer, the first women’s volleyball high school All-American in Ivy League history, lived up to her billing. The 5’11 outside hitter from Menlo Park, Calif. led the Crimson in both kills (13) and digs (12) against Loyola in her first collegiate game and finished the weekend with an impressive .451 kill percentage and 23 digs overall.
“The level of play was really high,” said Schweitzer, “but it is better and more fun that I ever expected.”
Fellow freshman Kaego Ogbechie posted a team-high .636 kill percentage with two solo blocks and three block assists in her first collegiate match. Ogbechie contributed offensively with devastating kills, but really shined defensively, compiling nine blocks and 21 digs for the weekend.
“We weren’t surprised about [the play of the freshmen],” Weiss said. “Through the preseason, we were able to evaluate their talent. Their level of play is very high.”
Outside hitter Erin Denniston, the team’s captain and lone senior, led by example, finishing the weekend with a team-high 35 kills and a .400 kill percentage. Now with 1,171 kills in her career, Denniston is 50 kills away from establishing a new Harvard record.
“Denniston’s leadership and presence on the court have gained the respect of the team,” Weiss said.
Next weekend, the Crimson will travel to the University of Hartford for the Lady Hawk Challenge before heading to California for a three-game road trip beginning September 20.
“We need to work on little things like quicker transitions and more disciplined defense,” said Weiss. “Once we get out to California, that is a whole different pace.”
Harvard 3, Lafayette 0
Simply put, in the weekend’s final game, the Crimson dominated.
At one point in the second game, Harvard won 13 consecutive points. Against a significantly shorter Lafayette team, Denniston, who had an Ivy League-leading four kills per game last year, posted a match-high 15 kills. By contrast, the entire Leopard squad could only muster 18 kills.
The Crimson defended aggressively, holding Lafayette (0-7) to a -.037 kill percentage. Harvard also ended with 37 team digs and four total blocks.
Several players registered their first significant playing time of the season against the Leopards. Sophomore outside hitter Amy Dildine racked up nine kills and freshman setter Kim Gould posted 15 assists.
“[The reserves] did a great job,” said Weiss. “In a situation like that you really just try to focus on making yourself better.”
Harvard 3, Colgate 0
Against Colgate (1-5), the underclassmen were the story.
Sophomore Mariah Pospisil led the Crimson with 11 kills and eight blocks, while Schweitzer added nine kills with a .421 kill percentage. Ogbechie led the squad with 12 digs and also chipped in nine kills with a .313 kill percentage.
“It’s a young team, but a strong team,” said Denniston. “The freshmen came in strong and ready to play.”
Although the underclassmen provided the bulk of the offensive firepower, Jellin also incorporated Denniston and junior outside hitter Nicole Meunier in the attack. Denniston finished with seven kills and Meunier notched six.
Though Harvard hit relatively poorly as a team (.293 kill percentage) against the Raiders, the Crimson defense limited Colgate to a paltry .046 success rate.
Harvard 3, Loyola 0
The Crimson hit a robust .467 as a team, while holding the Greyhounds (0-4) to an anemic .048 average to win its season opener.
Jellin posted 42 assists while Denniston and Schweitzer combined for 27 kills in the decisive victory.
Meunier registered 10 digs and Pospisil led the team with six blocks.
“The things we focused on in the preseason we executed very well. We need to work a little on our team defense, but it was a good start,” Weiss said.
With the first game tied at 2-2, the Crimson won 10 of the next 11 points. Schweitzer and Ogbechi made their presence felt, combining for five kills and a powerful combination block during the run.
“I think that all of the freshmen played really well and stepped it up for their first college game,” Jellin said.