Crimson Prepares to Face Ivy Slate

After snapping a six-match losing streak on Tuesday night, the Harvard women’s volleyball team hopes to build momentum as it enters the heart of Ivy League play this weekend, welcoming Princeton and Penn to the Malkin Athletic Center.

“We took a lot of lumps, but we got better,” Crimson coach Jennifer Weiss said of the team’s performance during a challenging non-conference preseason, which the Crimson (3-9, 0-1 Ivy) concluded Tuesday evening with a home victory over Holy Cross (0-16).

The 3-1 win marked the first time this season the Crimson went on to win a match after dropping a set. Senior setter Beth Kinsella hopes that Harvard will display a similar resilience this weekend.

“In some of our other losses, I think we’ve gotten a little rattled once we’ve started to lose control, and [Tuesday] we were able to just maintain our confidence throughout the whole game,” Kinsella said.  “I think that knowing that we can push back when a team is pushing at us is something you really can’t learn in practice.”

Now Harvard’s focus shifts entirely to the Ivy League as the team prepares to host Princeton (4-7, 1-0 Ivy) on Friday and Penn (5-7, 0-1 Ivy) on Saturday. The Crimson dropped its Ivy League opener at Dartmouth (2-9, 1-0 Ivy) in a close five-set match last Friday.

“Penn’s a strong blocking team, and Princeton is a very scrappy, defensive team, so we have to prepare, scout, and do our homework,” Weiss said.

Last Saturday, Princeton visited Penn for the two teams’ Ivy League opener. The Tigers rallied from a 2-1 deficit to win in five sets.

Both squads have traditionally been near the top of Ivy League volleyball as the two programs have combined for 24 Ivy League titles in 35 years. In 2011, Princeton finished one game behind Yale to place second in the Ancient Eight with an 11-3 record against conference opponents, and Penn finished one game ahead of Harvard to place fifth. The Crimson went 0-2 versus the 2011 Tigers but swept its season series against the Quakers.

But according to Kinsella, past results are poor predictors of this year’s contests.

“The Ivy League is always really variable. One team might be good the next year or not as strong,” Kinsella said. “Each Ivy League game any team can win, so when it comes down to it, it’s about maintaining composure and confidence.”

For a successful weekend, Harvard will look for a pair of strong performances from Kinsella and captain Taylor Docter. Kinsella has recorded a Harvard-high 5.42 assists per set this season, and Docter leads the Crimson with 3.00 kills per set and six double-doubles, but the disciplined Tiger and Quaker defenses will provide an interesting challenge for the two veterans.

The senior duo will have the support of young talent as freshman outside hitter Kathleen Wallace, freshman setter Hannah Schmidt, sophomore outside hitter Kristen Casey, and sophomore middle blocker Caroline Walters will also take the floor this weekend. Schmidt has recorded two double-doubles this month for the Crimson, while Wallace, Casey and Walters have earned All-Tournament team selections during Harvard’s preseason play.

Princeton will bring offensive power of its own to the MAC on Friday. Senior outside hitter and 2011 First Team All-Ivy honoree Lydia Rudnick leads the Ancient Eight with 3.91 kills per set. Freshman outside hitter Kendall Peterkin and junior middle blocker Leah Jordan, who average 2.89 and 1.38 kills per set, respectively, will also challenge the Crimson.

On Saturday, Harvard will have to contend with the defensive prowess of Penn’s Dani Shepherd.  The junior libero and First Team All-Ivy honoree leads NCAA Division I volleyball with 6.61 digs per set this season.  In addition, Quaker freshman stars Ronnie Bither and Alex Caldwell have already won a combined three Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors.

Harvard looks forward to this home stretch after spending much of the month on the road.

“It’s nice to be home,” Weiss said. “Having the home court advantage does matter in the beginning of the Ivies.”

“There’s that extra level of comfort and excitement playing for a home crowd,” Kinsella added.

According to the team, this weekend is when the season really begins for the Crimson.

“These are the games that really matter for our record and for our conference play,” Kinsella said.  “There’s that added pressure of the Ivy League.”