In its 2013 campaign, the Harvard men’s volleyball team advanced to the EIVA tournament finals for the first time in program history. One year later, a season-ending playoff loss in the semifinals to Princeton thwarted any attempt at another title run. But even the loss could not diminish the success of the Crimson’s 2014 season, which was full of program bests in conference wins, national rankings, and all-EIVA player selections.
“Given the whole season together, I think we played some great volleyball,” co-captain Nick Madden said. “I think we did the program proud. We did well on the road, in California, and in the Midwest, and I’m proud of the way we ended.”
Harvard (15-8, 11-3 EIVA) came into the season riding the momentum of past years’ successes. The team had advanced to the playoffs in each of the previous two years. The Crimson entered the season ranked No. 13 in the nation in the preseason polls and looked towards the possibility of supplanting rival Penn State from its spot at the top of the EIVA.
After an early season trip to California, Harvard opened conference play at home against the Tigers, the only other Ancient Eight school with a men’s volleyball program. The rivals have met nine times over the past three seasons, and six of those matches have gone the distance to a full five sets.
Both regular-season matchups against Princeton continued this trend, and both times the Crimson dug out the win in the fifth. With a strong senior class, Harvard was often able to use its experience and veteran leadership in tight situations.
Madden led the team throughout the season, especially in the team’s contests against the Tigers. His 17 kills in the home fixture paced the Crimson, and he followed that up with a double-double showing later in the season at Princeton.
Co-captain and libero Chris Gibbons also stepped up in big games. All season he was Harvard’s defensive stalwart, becoming the program’s leader in career digs. Double-digit dig performances against Concordia, Ball State, and Princeton were impressive performances in road tests.
In six five-set matches this season, the Crimson went 5-1, a testament to the determination and resilience the team showed all campaign.
“Our team is pretty clutch,” Madden said. “We finish tight games, [and] we won a lot of games that went to five this year. Not all of them—that was our goal in the preseason—but we compete really hard. When it comes down to it, we will do whatever it takes to get that win.”
Aside from leadership, another key ingredient in the Harvard recipe is team chemistry. Junior middle blocker Caleb Zimmick, who has been named a co-captain for next season, believes that this cohesion was responsible for taking the Crimson to greater heights this year.
“We’re really tight knit, from all the starters on all the way down on the bench,” Zimmick said. “It’s a really close group, and because of that we’re able to challenge each other and push each other, and I think that definitely helped us to be better.”
And so, 11 conference wins later, with conference losses only to Penn State twice and George Mason on the road, the Crimson prepared to face Princeton in the postseason semifinals. Unfortunately for the Crimson, a 3-1 loss to the Tigers ended Harvard’s 2014 run.
“It was a pretty demoralizing loss,” Zimmick said. “We beat them twice during the year, but at that time, in that game, they were better than us.”
Despite no postseason success, team members had strong individual years. Junior DJ White had another sterling season as a top-five hitter in the conference. Zimmick and junior Kyle Rehkemper made all-conference teams for their work as blockers, and freshman Nick Bendell stepped onto the team as starting setter, garnering Freshman All-American honors.
The Crimson had one of the best offenses in the country, posting a .289 kill percentage for the season, and its defense frequently bailed it out in close games.
Coach Brian Baise has taken this team to a level it hopes to maintain, competing at the top of the conference.
And the Crimson is not going away anytime soon, players said.
“I think the team will continue to get better,” Madden said. “I’m really excited for next season. We’ve got three great recruits coming in, and Caleb and DJ are stepping up into leadership positions and I know they’ll do well. I think we’re on a great trajectory.”
—Staff writer Julian Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.