On a quiet Saturday afternoon two weeks ago, Harvard men’s volleyball closed out its home season against Saint Francis, winning in four sets. As senior Will Chambers hit the game-winning kill, the half-full crowd loudly cheered the team—which had clinched a third consecutive playoff bid—off the court. While it was a routine victory for the team, for the five seniors who had just played their final home game, it was the beginning of the end of their four-year journey. Every senior class is special in its own right, but the Crimson will graduate a truly exceptional group of players this year.
When the seniors arrived as bushy-eyed freshmen for the 2011 season, the program was in a very different state. Playing in the second tier of the EIVA, the team finished last in the conference, going 1-7 with its solitary conference win. In the final game of the 2011 season, Shaun Mansour ’11 was the lone senior honored—a far cry from the size of this year’s class.
The future was bright, though, as four of those freshmen started right from the start. Nick Madden started at middle blocker freshman year, but has since been the team’s go-to opposite hitter. Madden does a bit of everything for the squad, and does it all superbly. On all-time Harvard lists, he is second with 475 digs (despite not being a libero), third with 848 kills, fourth with 214 block assists, fifth with 234 total blocks and sixth with 59 service aces. Few players have the ability to impact as many areas of the game as Madden is able to week in and week out. His wide-ranging dominance has seen him rack up an impressive eight double-doubles for his career, including four this season as he has taken game to the next level.
While Madden may be second all-time for blocks, the number one spot belongs to his fellow co-captain. Chris Gibbons has spent his career as the team’s libero, the fulcrum around which the team pivots. His record of 778 digs for his career is miles ahead of his closest rival and speaks to the volume of quality performances the California native has put in over his four years. His single season record of 219 digs set last season is in danger of being broken again, as he sits at 205 heading into the playoffs. He has been a model of consistency on the squad throughout his tenure and the defensive focal point of the team for the last four years.
Fellow senior Kyle Rehkemper is a wiry 6’6” player who has spent his time as a blocking machine for Harvard. The middle blocker has similar career stats to Madden—199 block assists and 223 total blocks—despite being unable to play for the team his sophomore year. Who knows what Crimson records would have tumbled down had he been able to compete that year? Rehkemper was named to the All-EIVA second team as a junior, an honor that among the seniors he alone has been able to garner up to this point.
Michael Owen started out as a hitter but is now the team’s primary setter. Despite sharing a name with the diminutive national English hero who scored that goal (yeah, that one) against Argentina in the ’98 World Cup, this Owen stands at a formidable 6’7” and yet still has the agility to react swiftly, and the touch to set up the rest of the offense. Walk-on Will Chambers rounds out the class as a middle blocker. Though infrequently used, he has always been remarkably effective and will graduate as the Crimson’s leader on the career efficiency list, holding a career hitting average of .435.
On the back of the promise shown by this group in their first season together, Harvard was ranked fifteenth in the national preseason poll their sophomore year. The turnaround was dramatic: the team qualified for the EIVA playoffs as the second seed before a gut-wrenching playoff loss to George Mason in the semifinals.
The next year the Crimson moved up a notch to No. 14 in the preseason rankings and then went one step further, avenging last season’s defeat in winning a five-set thriller over George Mason to send them to the championship game against Penn State, who has dominated the EIVA landscape in winning the conference for the past 15 years. Despite Harvard splitting the regular season with the Nittany Lions that year, winning at home but losing away, in the championship it was no contest. Penn State ran away with the title in straight sets.
This year Harvard was ranked No. 13 in the preseason rankings. The natural progression has them taking that final step and winning the conference. After finishing second in the league, but losing all six sets it played against the Nittany Lions, this Crimson team finished the year on a three-match win streak. It is ready. It has been a win four years in the making. Now the Crimson is truly set to end the Penn State reign that stretches back to the last century.
Heading into the tournament, one absolutely should not discount what coach Brian Baise has done with the squad in bringing them to the level that they are at today. The Crimson simply would not have had the success it has had in the last four years without him at the helm. Nonetheless, Harvard owes an enormous debt to this senior class.
When the audience was cheering after the Saint Francis victory, it was not just congratulating the team and its seniors on a job well done. It was saying goodbye to a group that has redefined what opponents think when they look on the schedule and see the name “Harvard”.
—Staff writer Julian Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.