After suffering its first loss of the season to George Mason on Friday, the Harvard men’s volleyball team got back on track Saturday afternoon, defeating Princeton in a three-game sweep that was much more contentious than the final score might suggest. The Tigers (2-3, 1-1 EIVA) gave the home team a run for its money at the end of every game, but Harvard (6-1, 1-1) came away with the 3-0 win at the Malkin Athletic Center.
With its first loss of the year coming to the Patriots in a series of close games the night before, Harvard made sure that on Saturday night it would be the one scoring the crucial final points as evidenced in the 28-26, 25-23, and 25-20 results against Princeton.
“[Friday] night against George Mason, the games were tight at the end, and they made the plays and we didn’t,” Harvard coach Brian Baise said. “But [Saturday] we made those plays, and that’s good to see.… It shows confidence and poise and an ability to focus on our side.”
But it seems that the change of fortune was no accident. After getting tripped up by the Patriots’ play, the Crimson shifted its focus to the Tigers.
“Any time coming out of a loss like that, we are more determined and more focused than ever,” Baise said. “I don’t want to call it a reality check, but it was our first loss, and we realized we’re not always going to play as well as we had been. We had to figure out how to get wins even when we weren’t playing our best.”
One way Harvard made sure to avoid a repeat of Friday’s result was to adapt to its Ivy rival’s style of play.
“[Saturday] Princeton was tipping a lot, hitting the back corners, so we sort of adjusted where we were standing on the court,” sophomore libero Chris Gibbons said. “And it was pretty effective in stopping their offense.”
The Crimson’s offense also stepped up, giving the Tigers more than they could handle in the form of Harvard’s two powerhouse freshman hitters, DJ White and Caleb Zimmick, who combined for 29 kills.
“Our freshman Caleb Zimmick was absolutely crushing it.… I don’t think he got blocked once,” sophomore hitter Nick Madden said. “And DJ White was obviously killing it too.”
Although the Crimson’s offense produced points when it counted, the first game saw the team struggling to pull away from Princeton. The teams traded points, neither leading by more than two, all the way until Harvard found itself facing a 24-23 deficit.
But co-captain Matt Jones stepped up under pressure with a vicious kill to keep his team in the game.
“Matt definitely stepped up—in game one he basically carried the team,” Madden said.
“Jones is the backbone of this team, as always,” Baise added. “He’s always at the center of what we’re doing.”
Subsequent kills from Zimmick and Madden reversed the tide and helped the Crimson take the first game, 28-26.
The second game began with the Tigers jumping ahead, and after several Harvard service errors, it looked like Princeton might run away with the game.
“I think we definitely struggled with serving, especially in game two,” Madden said. “I think we missed five or six serves, and that’s five or six points for them and five or six less for us.”
But a late push, once again led by kills from Zimmick, Jones, and sophomore Will Chambers, allowed the Crimson to charge ahead to a 25-23 win.
Harvard kept the momentum going into the third game and held off final comeback efforts by the Princeton offense. At times it looked like the Tigers still had a fight in them, but as the score approached 25, the Crimson pulled away and finished the win by a five-point margin.
“Princeton is a big rival for us in all kinds of ways…so we always try to bring our best game for them,” Blaise said. “When we left [Friday] we wanted to leave it behind us and focus on [Saturday], and the team did a really good job.”
—Staff writer Madeleine Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.