While most of the school will remember 2012 as the year Harvard basketball first entered the national spotlight by entering the country’s top polls, the 2012 Harvard men’s volleyball team (18-6, 10-4 EIVA) can also look back on this year as the first time it gained national recognition after one of the most impressive seasons in program history.
Though it was knocked out of the EIVA tournament in the first round, the Crimson was able to attract attention from the country’s coaches after an impressive spring break road trip put them against some of the country’s elite. With its first ranking under its belt, the Harvard will continue to reap the benefits that national recognition brings.
“[The ranking] was symbolic of us going out there and maturing as a program and as a team,” Crimson coach Brian Baise says. “It’s given us some national attention, which will help with all parts of the program.”
Harvard was coming off of a 9-13 season, during which the Crimson’s young team was only able to pick up one conference victory. But that youth quickly turned into experience, as the team got off to a hot start to the season.
“Last year we had a good team, but a young team,” Baise says. “We lost a lot of close games, and we played a lot of really good volleyball. I could tell pretty early on that we were going to be good—that the work ethic and desire were there.”
That desire was shown in the squad’s opening matches, as Harvard began the season with four straight wins against non-conference opponents. To extend its winning streak, the Crimson would have to host a tough opponent from the West Coast in Cal Baptist.
Harvard did more than hold its own, though, taking down the Lancers in four games and giving the team the program’s best start since the 1993 season.
But the beginning of conference play showed the Crimson that it was not untouchable, as George Mason handed it a 3-0 loss at home to begin the EIVA slate. Harvard did not dwell on the defeat for long, though, taking down Princeton in three games the next day.
And after then-No. 5 Penn State grabbed a win at the Malkin Athletic Center, the Crimson began an eight-game conference winning streak to shoot towards the top of the standings.
Harvard was buoyed by co-captain and outside hitter Matt Jones. Jones finished the season ranked second in the EIVA in kills per set and fourth in aces per set. Jones made contributions on both sides of the ball, as he earned EIVA Offensive and Defensive Player of the week awards at different times in the season.
For spring break, the team traveled to California, a historically strong volleyball state, for a challenging road trip. Its first matchup, against No. 12 Cal State Northridge, looked to be the most challenging.
But rather than fold, the then-unranked Crimson took it to the Matadors, downing them, 3-1, on their own court.
“I think it was our biggest game of the year,” sophomore outside hitter Nick Madden says. “Beating them pretty badly made us believe for the rest of the season that we were capable of beating teams.”
Jones agreed with his teammate, underlining the importance of that victory, but also the importance of the entire trip.
“For so many reasons, the Cal State Northridge win signifies what our team is about this and where our program is,” Jones says. “The trip as a whole legitimized that we were a good team and a team that could compete in the playoffs. After that trip, we felt just making the playoffs wasn’t enough, and that we could do more.”
The squad continued its strong form for the rest of the regular season, taking the first two games against the Nittany Lions away from home before the 2008 national champions snatched the match back and won in five. Harvard took the two seed going into the playoffs, but knew it would have to fight through a tough George Mason squad and most likely Penn State again to reach the NCAA tournament.
But in the first round of the EIVA tournament, the Crimson took on a bigger team in the Patriots. After splitting the season series, George Mason came out on top, ending the Crimson’s run.
Though Jones will likely leave a big hole in Harvard’s roster, a big incoming class and a wealth of young talent, including freshman All-EIVA first-teamer DJ White, will have the Crimson in prime position to compete at the top again.
—Staff writer Peter G. Cornick can be reached at email@example.com.