After knocking off No. 9 Penn State Friday night in straight sets, the Harvard men’s volleyball team was riding high heading into Saturday’s matchup against St Francis. And despite some early hiccups, the Crimson was able to cap off one of the greatest weekends in program history with its second straight-set conference victory in as many days against the Red Flash at the Malkin Athletic Center.
After the team’s first-ever win over the Nittany Lions and an earlier 3-0 defeat of St. Francis on Jan 25th, Harvard (7-2, 3-1 EIVA) entered the game as heavy favorites against its conference rivals. But stretches of sloppy play combined with strong pressure from the Red Flash (5-9, 2-3 EIVA) made life difficult for the home team, which required some late rallies to secure the match.
“We definitely did not play our best,” said junior libero Chris Gibbons, who led his team with 11 digs. “We knew it would be tough coming off such a high-adrenaline win [against Penn State]… and come back and focus on St. Francis.”
Harvard coach Brian Baise acknowledged that his team struggled dealing with the emotional effect of the Penn State win.
“We know that to compete at this level and reach the goals that we have, we have got to be able to play Friday-Saturday matches,” Baise said. “We have to be in shape enough to and strong enough mentally to play hard.”
St. Francis did not appear intimidated early in the contest, and Harvard struggled to control its energy as the Red Flash stormed out to a 10-6 lead. The Crimson began to edge its way back into the game behind several attack errors and kills from junior outside hitters Nick Madden and Kyle Rehkemper, taking a 19-17 lead and forcing a St. Francis timeout. But the stoppage did not halt the Crimson’s momentum, as the squad held its lead for a 25-23 win.
Baise credited St. Francis’ strong play to a solid service game and blocking that knocked Harvard out of its offensive rhythm.
“We were not quite as sharp, but mentally we hung in there and the guys got the point when we needed them,” Baise said. “We were in sync in stretches, and we had to fight and labor a little bit to get through.”
Gibbons also nodded to the Red Flash’s strong play, but acknowledged that his team did not make the match easy.
“[We had] mistakes coming on our side–whether it was passing, defense, or hitting,” Gibbons said. “We had to clean up a few things on our side where we were making errors.”
The second set was a frame of runs for both teams, as they exchanged leads early. But some strong blocking from St. Francis gave the team a slight advantage, 17-15, before Baise called a timeout. The Red Flash continued to hold its ground, extending its lead to 21-18.
But some strong defensive play from the home side, anchored by Gibbons, kept several strong hits from St. Francis alive and allowed the Crimson to cash in some chances. The service and offensive passing began to warm up, as well. Sophomore DJ White notched five of his team-high 12 kills after the Harvard timeout. As Harvard seemed to look more like the team it was on Friday night, the Crimson was able to march on a seven-point run to close out the second frame, 25-21.
The momentum continued for Harvard, as the Crimson raced out to an 8-4 lead to begin the third frame. More attack errors from the Red Flash put the visitors in a deeper hole at 13-7.
But, as it did all night, the Red Flash persisted. After applying some offensive pressure, St. Francis was able to pull within two, 22-20, before Baise called a timeout to settle his squad’s nerves.
The tactic worked, as Harvard and the Red Flash traded points, pushing on to a 25-22 victory for the Crimson.
After not dropping a set all weekend and taking a 3-1 record away from its two Pennsylvania rivals on the season, Gibbons feels his team is ready to handle any competition left in the coming months.
“There are a lot of good teams left to play in our league,” Gibbons said. “We know that we have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but this weekend was a good confidence booster. [Friday night] was probably the best volleyball we’ve played all season, so we are very confident going forward.”
–Staff writer Peter G. Cornick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org