Last Friday night, Harvard men’s volleyball suffered perhaps the most crushing loss of the season.
On the road, facing conference foe Sacred Heart (12-3, 5-2 EIVA), the Crimson built a two-set lead. Then the Pioneers changed defensive tactics, staged a comeback, and nabbed a five-game victory.
“The moment we got on the bus after last name…the focus was [on rebounding] on our side of the net,” junior setter Marko Kostich said. “We felt like we beat ourselves last game.”
The result, which stranded Harvard in fourth in the EIVA, left a bitter taste. Also lingering was the question of how the Crimson would respond to such an emotional bender.
The answer came exactly four nights later. On Tuesday, the Crimson gritted through a tight start against Coker (9-5) and zoomed ahead, earning a clean sweep at the Malkin Athletic Center.
“Friday was really tough, especially for being a conference match,” said junior middle blocker Riley Moore. “We just tried to work on a couple things that we hadn’t done as well on Friday, especially passing.... We tried to fix everything and come out today.”
Even so, doubt shadowed the court late in the first frame. A back-and-forth start to play left Harvard with an 18-17 deficit. A set loss threatened frustration and fatigue—in other words, a continuation of the emotions from Friday night.
But with captain Casey White serving, the Crimson mounted a 6-0 run. The game ended a minute later, with Harvard (6-7, 3-4 EIVA) emerging with the 25-20 advantage.
“The one thing you completely control in a game is your serving and your passing,” Kostisch said. “That’s what we excelled in [against Coker].”
Freshman outside hitter Erik Johnsson led all players with 12 kills, contributing to his .304 hitting percentage. The performance continued an impressive rookie season, as Johnsson ranks second on the team with 133 put-downs, exactly one behind White.
“Erik is an athletic powerhouse,” Kostich said. “The way he performed this game was super clean and high-level.”
White totaled eight kills but also recorded five service errors. As a team, the Crimson missed 15 serves, or five mistakes per set. Often, those missteps came because of increased aggressiveness, as players tried to drop balls in tight spaces.
In more competitive matches, those errors might prove painful. But against the Cobras, Harvard negated any offensive deficiencies with defensive prowess—especially in the third set.
In that final frame, Harvard posted aggressive blocks and scrambled for digs, limiting Coker to a -.188 kill rate. The Cobras had to settle for riskier shots, which resulted in more misses. Thirteen of the Crimson’s points came off errors by Coker.
Fittingly, the night ended on a mistake by sophomore outside hitter Gabriel Castro. Harvard emerged with a 25-17 frame and a 3-0 triumph—the team’s second sweep of the season. Late in February, the Crimson had downed NJIT in three sets, as well.
Heading into the match, sophomore Joao Victor Santos led the Cobras with 3.7 kills per frame. But on Friday night, the hosts held the 6’7” native of Brazil to seven kills versus eight errors. That performance translated to a negative hitting percentage.
“After the end of set one, we dug a lot of balls,” Moore said. “That’s really important.”
In fact, three other Coker players dipped below .000 on the night. Collectively, the Cobras slumped to a .062 mark.
In the second set, the visitors converted 10 kills on 22 attacks, but the Crimson overpowered that performance. Continuing the energy surge that ended the first frame, Harvard took an immediate lead and never trailed.
“We spread the ball around really well,” Moore said. “Our offense was really spread-out, which was good. Our passing worked really well too.”
With the Crimson owning a 15-6 lead, the game seemed on the verge of embarrassment. Coker narrowed the gap with a late-frame push, but the result was never really in doubt.
The final score stood at 25-20, pushing Harvard into the final frame—and, ultimately, into the evening with a 3-0 win.
“We’re getting better and better every day,” Kostich said. “The thing I’m really proud of is that everyone is working hard everyday. Usually at the start of the season, everyone is working their butts off, and they tire out later on. But everyone is working hard.”
—Staff writer Sam Danello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.