When Harvard men’s volleyball team played Concordia last season, the Crimson was on the wrong side of a blowout, with the Eagles easily winning in straight sets. On Tuesday night, however, the Crimson (6-4, 4-1 EIVA) and the Eagles (14-4, 2-0 NAIA) went right down to the wire in a five-set thriller, with the Crimson eventually prevailing, 15-12, in the tense final set.
According to senior captain and libero Chris Gibbons, the final set was an extremely tense affair, with both teams nervous about making mistakes and neither team able to take control of the match. Neither side could open up a lead greater than two throughout the set as the Eagles came into the final stretch leading 11-10.
In a crucial point, a Concordia killbarreled down to the left of Gibbons that would have put the win within reach for the visitors. However, with very little time to react, Gibbons managed to get the ball up, setting up a spike by junior DJ White that tied up the game.
“I mean it’s great,” said Gibbons about the defensive stop. “That’s a lot of my responsibility on the court, playing good defense, so whenever I can get out there and stop the ball from hitting the ground–job success!”
The point swung the momentum of the game permanently in the Crimson’s favor. Aside from a service error by sophomore Branden Clemens, Harvard was dominant in the late stages with a kill by junior Caleb Zimmick finally putting the game to bed.
Crimson coach Brian Baise said that sort of defensive play was typical of Harvard throughout the match, which was consistent and clinical in the win. The Eagles was coming in on the tail end of 10-match win streak but their offense was stifled by the Crimson, whoheld Concordia to a hitting percentage of .209 on the night.
“We saw a lot of fight and drive [tonight],” Baise said. “We were sharp in the ways we needed to be and we’ve been working on. Our defense was in great form tonight and that’s been a harder thing for us. Our offense has been okay, but we’ve had a hard time slowing down other teams [yet] we were able to do that tonight.”
Throughout the game, the Crimson prevented kills with play at the net and in the backcourt.
“I think the difference between the sets we won and the sets we lost was good defense,” Gibbons added. “We were blocking well at the net and being aggressive with our serves so it was hard for them to get their offense going.”
Baise emphasized that it was not only stopping the opponents from scoring but also the ability to turn defense into offensive opportunities that was key in the Crimson’s victory. Harvard had a season-high 44 digs over the five sets, with Gibbons leading both teams with 15 digs of his own.
“Our blocking got better but really we had digs and were able convert those points,” Baise said. “We haven’t really been able to do that as efficiently as we would like [in weeks past] but you have to when you play teams like this.”
After the Crimson took the first set 25-21, the second set was an even closer affair. The Concordia defense found its rhythm late. After having allowed the Crimson to post a .407 hitting percentage in the first set, holding them to a .278 hitting percentage in the second set and a nearly identical .280 hiting percentage in the third set.
Though close throughout, the home side still found itself leading, 24-21, but with its back against the wall, the Eagles fought back. Three consecutive kills by senior middle blocker Mark Metrakos tied the game up as the set came right down to the wire, with Concordia eventually prevailing, 29-27, when Clemens committed an attack error that tied up the match at one set apiece.
“That was pretty wild,” said Baise of the second set. “I felt like we gave that set away a little bit. We made a lot of uncharacteristic mental errors. I felt like we were in control, but unfortunately it went the other way. After that I wasn’t sure if we would be able to come back and we were.”
Riding that momentum, the Concordia offense then posted a .391 hitting percentage in the third set to go up two sets to one, 25-20. Staring defeat in the face, the Crimson defense bailed the team out in the fourth set, completely shutting down the Eagles’ offense to send the game to a deciding fifth, which the Crimson won, 15-12, for its sixth win in seven contests.
Baise said after the game that the victory over a team that blew out Harvard last year is indicative of the team’s competitive mindset.
“I think [the game] tells us a lot,” Baise said. “It’s a non-league game and it’s sort of easy to look past it but coming off last weekend where we lost to Penn State [and] we beat St. Francis but didn’t play our best, I felt we needed tonight to see how we were going to rebound. I think this gives us a lot of confidence going into next weekend and reminding ourselves how we can play.”
—Staff writer Julian Ryan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JRCrimson.