Men's Volleyball Tops Sacred Heart in Five Sets, Earning Second Seed in Playoffs

­This Saturday, the Harvard men’s volleyball team sailed into a home match against Sacred Heart (12-13, 3-9 EIVA) with the hope of anchoring a second-place playoff seed with a victory.

Although the Crimson (13-11, 7-5 EIVA) reached its destination with a 3-2 win, the team had to overcome some choppy water. Despite holding 1-0 and 2-1 game leads, Harvard needed a fifth set to beat the Pioneers and secure a first-round matchup with George Mason on Wednesday.

“We weren’t at our best,” Crimson coach Brian Baise said. “We were a little flat. But the guys stepped up, and we got the points when we needed to.”

Midway through the fourth game at the Malkin Athletic Center, the wind seemed to have shifted in the home team’s direction when Harvard used a 6-0 run to erase an early 5-1 margin.

Then Sacred Heart responded with a tack of its own, putting together a 5-1 stretch to regain control soon after. The two sides traded points until the Pioneers finished the frame with a three-point run that pushed the score to 25-20.

“There were small execution things that were leading to big runs for them,” junior outside hitter Branden Clemens said. “We decided to clean up our game and focus on what we do best.

Sacred Heart outside hitter Enzo Mackenzie played a large role in this game, as he did throughout the night. The senior tallied six kills in the fourth frame and ended with 22 overall.

In the fifth set, Mackenzie’s four finishes accounted for half of the Pioneers’ offense. However, the Crimson opened the game on a 5-1 run and never let Sacred Heart get closer than two en route to a 15-8 win.

Outside hitter D.J. White notched the final kill of the match, which marked a fitting ending to a night on which Harvard celebrated its two seniors and co-captains, Caleb Zimmick and White. While White racked up 15 kills, Zimmick watched from the bench in sweatpants, confined there by sickness.

“This game was to honor the seniors,” Clemens said. “They’ve been role models for me. They’ve set such a precedent, volleyball-wise, that I’ve been trying to strive for my entire career.”

In the first set, the Crimson’s play seemed to reflect such appreciation, as Harvard jumped to a 10-5 advantage on the strength of six kills. The Crimson led the rest of the way and took the game, 25-20.

The trio of White, sophomore brother Casey White, and Clemens directed the attack with a combined 14 finishes in the frame. On the night, each player recorded at least 15 kills, and Clemens topped his side with 18.

“We’ve finally gotten a groove at least as far as energy is concerned,” Clemens said. “When we have better energy, we play looser and play the game that we know we can.”

Harvard experienced even smoother sailing for much of the third set, building a 9-2 advantage off serving runs from freshman setter Marko Kostich and freshman middle blocker Brad Gretsch.

But point by point, the Pioneers clawed back. The Crimson needed a late-frame timeout and a final finish from freshman middle blocker Riley Moore to secure the 25-22 set victory.

The idea of escape typified the contest, as the Crimson was fighting for the right to avoid a first round matchup with Penn State, winners of 31 EIVA championships. Thanks to Saturday’s win, Harvard booked a date with the Patriots instead.

Yet the Crimson didn’t look much like a playoff competitor in the second frame, as Sacred Heart held the hosts to a .115 hitting percentage. The Pioneers led wire-to-wire thanks to four runs of at least three points.

Then, as occurred throughout the night, Harvard mustered the energy to take the next game.
“We played our best matches in the second half of the season,” Baise said. “I think we’re ready. I think we’re playing as well as we’ve played.”

—Staff writer Sam Danello can be reached at sam.danello@thecrimson.com.

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