At this time last year, the Harvard men’s volleyball team had finished its season at the bottom of the EIVA standings with no hopes of competing for a championship. The team managed to win its last game, though, and hoped for the best in the coming season.
That victory turned out to be a sign of good things to come. One year later, the No. 15 ranked Crimson (18-5, 10-4) enters the EIVA conference championship as the No. 2 seed. The team will compete for the eleventh EIVA championship and first NCAA bid in program history.
A championship would cap off one of the finest seasons in Harvard history. This marks the first year since 1995 that the team has recorded 18 wins in a season. The Crimson also holds the lowest number of losses in a season since 1993.
The team’s 18 wins mark a career high for head Coach Brian Baise, who was named the EIVA Coach of the Year earlier in the week. Harvard heads to the conference tournament for the second time in his career and the first since 2009.
In addition to Baise’s honors, three members of the team earned All-Conference nods. Senior outside hitter Matt Jones and freshman outside hitter D.J. White were awarded first team EIVA distinctions, while sophomore setter Rob Lothman earned second team honors.
The honors are well deserved. Jones’s 3.8 kills per game rank second in the conference and tenth in the nation. His .43 service aces per set also sit at tenth in the nation and fourth in the conference
White is fifth in the conference and 14th in the nation in hitting percentage, of which he has averaged .326 per game.
But according to Baise, the Crimson’s staunch defense has been the story of the year.
“We noticed early on in the year that the teams we were playing were hitting far above their season average when we played them,” Baise said. “So we we’re obviously not doing things that we had to. About halfway through the a season it became clear for us to beat some of the top tier teams and to go out to California and compete, we needed to improve our defense. Part of that has been blocking, part of it is our libero Chris Gibbons, and the back row has worked hard. And I think those things together have made the difference.”
Harvard will need its strong defensive play on Thursday, when the competition begins at No. 1 Penn State’s home court. The team will play third-seeded George Mason (12-16, 8-6) in the opening game of the tournament.
The Crimson has split the season series with George Mason. On Feb. 10, Harvard fell to the Patriots in three straight sets at home at the Malkin Athletic Center. The team exacted its revenge in March, when it beat George Mason, 3-2, in Manassas, Virginia.
It will take a strong game from the Crimson to get out of the first round.
“We have to have a good serving game,” Baise said. “The first time we played them we didn’t serve as tough as we need to. Their offense was strong and got real tough to stop. The second time we went down there, we served tough and played better defense, which has gotten better throughout the season. I think to beat them we need to have a good night blocking. We can’t let their hitters have too many easy kills. In addition, we need to be able to handle their serves.”
If the Crimson defeats George Mason on Thursday night, it will move on to Saturday’s championship game. There, Harvard will face the winner of the Penn State (21-5, 14-0) and Princeton (13-9, 7-7) game.
Penn State, the eighth ranked team in the country, is the overwhelming favorite. The Nittany Lions dominated the Crimson on Feb. 17, when they beat Harvard in three straight sets. But the rematch was a different story. After going up two sets in the second time facing Penn State, the Crimson could not close out the match. The Nittany Lions clawed out of its deficit to take the remaining sets and the match.
“We try to take it one game at a time, but I think if we have a game against Penn State, we’re going to be real motivated,” Lothman said. “I think its similar to our California trip last year: we were a little awe stricken and weren’t quite on our game. Then, we came back a year later and we played a lot better. Against Penn State, the first two times, we were a little hesitant and didn’t fully believe in ourselves. But now we’re ready. We’ll get them if we get another shot.”