The Harvard men’s volleyball team (15-8, 11-3 EIVA) saw its season come to an end with a loss to Ivy rival Princeton (16-9, 10-4 EIVA) in the EIVA playoffs, held at Penn State.
Although Harvard won both times when these teams met in the regular season, Princeton actually had more total points over the course of the two matchups. When push came to shove in the playoffs, it was the Tigers who came out on top.
“I think that they served pretty great and passed pretty well,” said co-captain Nick Madden of the loss. “We didn’t serve great, could have passed better and could have played looser.”
Coach Brian Baise echoed Madden’s sentiments. He also cited serving and passing as the key influences behind the Princeton win, referencing the difference in confidence between the two sides as another contributing factor.
“The difference between the two teams today was the serving and the passing,” Baise said. “They served very well and we struggled with their serve. They were swinging around, and playing looser and with a lot more confidence.”
That confidence translated into a dominant Tigers’ offensive performance. Its powerful trio of hitters who were named this week to All-EIVA teams, Cody Kessel, Pat Schwagler and Devin Stearns, laid siege to the Crimson defense.
Kessel, a junior, has been Princeton’s best hitter all season and one of the top hitters in the conference. However, he was kept relatively silent with 11 kills at only a .188 clip. However, Stearns and Schwagler were rampant. Schwagler put in game-high performances of 22 and 16 kills against Harvard this season and paced both teams again with 19 kills on the night, at an extremely efficient rate of .471. Stearns too had 17 kills and overall the Princeton’s typically strong offense won out over Harvard’s typically strong defense.
For the game, the Tigers averaged just under 15 kills a game while Harvard reached that threshold just one in four sets. Princeton was also the cleaner team on the night, committing six fewer errors than the Crimson with a hitting percentage of .280 or higher in three of the four sets (compared to just one of four for Harvard).
The Crimson could not get anything going out of the gate on the night. The team was held to an anemic .088 hitting percentage in the first set, with only nine kills and a costly six errors. Under an offensive onslaught from the Tigers, Harvard went down 25-20 in the first, with the result never really in doubt.
Things started to pick up for the Crimson in the second, but the Princeton offense rifled into higher gear. The Tigers came out swinging and jumped out to a 10-3 lead behind strong hitting. Maintaining that lead for the rest of the set, Princeton ran out comfortable 25-15 winners backed by an imperious .483 hitting percentage for the set.
Defense has been part of Harvard’s calling card all season and despite 11 digs from both co-captains Madden and libero Chris Gibbons, Princeton junior libero Tony Ensbury was the defensive difference maker. The junior had a game-high 18 digs, thwarting the Harvard offense all game long. However, just as the game looked close to being over, the Crimson showed some true spirit.
Behind the hitting of Caleb Zimmick and Branden Clemens, Harvard clawed its way back into the match. With the offense flowing, the team was able to squeeze out a close third set 25-22, ending set with five of seven points after being tied at 20. Zimmick, though typically a blocker, led the Crimson with 12 kills off only 19 attempts for the game.
Fighting to keep its season alive, Harvard played a tense fourth game. According to Baise, it really could have gone either way but at the end of the day, the Crimson just failed to capitalize on some of its opportunities.
“We had opportunities, especially in that fourth game,” Baise said. “It was such a competitive match and such a fast game that if you don’t take those opportunities on the first try, you don’t get them back.”
The Tigers ran out as 25-21 winners to clinch the match, ending the match with a fitting Schwagler kill. Princeton will now go on to face Penn State for the EIVA crown in Saturday’s final, while Harvard’s season ended with a loss a game short of where it went the year before.
For some players on the team, it was not just the last game of the season but indeed the last game of their careers. The senior class has seen Harvard volleyball grow into a top EIVA contender, and set program records for conference wins, national rankings and All-EIVA selections this season. For Madden, who led the team to 60 total wins over the course of his four-year career, it was a time well spent.
“I’m really happy with the four years that we’ve played as a senior class here,” Madden said. “We’ve changed the program for the better, we’ve worked really hard, and I’m proud to say I’ve played for the team. I’m looking forward to the tradition of strong volleyball programs continuing over the next couple of years. I haven’t regretted a game I’ve played in the past four years and don’t regret the effort we put out there tonight.”
—Staff writer Julian Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.