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A fresh outlook was all the Harvard men’s volleyball team needed for a new outcome.
Inspired by a pregame speech from first-year coach Rob Keller on Saturday, the Crimson (5-5, 3-3 Hay) played the best it has all season. After steamrolling the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) 3-0 on Saturday, Harvard clawed past perennial power Vassar 3-2 on Sunday in a season-defining win.
“[Tri-captain and middle blocker] Alex [Kowell] and I haven’t beaten Vassar since we’ve been here,” said tri-captain and setter Mike Bookman. “I think this really turns our whole season around.”
The season may have turned around the day before, when Keller delivered his speech. Following a frustrating February, the rookie coach had a revelation, which he shared with his players.
“They are always grinding,” Keller said. “They were grinding to get into Harvard. They are always grinding on their books. After we lost last weekend, the bus was quiet because they were all studying.
“I told them that they just have to play volleyball. We wanted to break out of the sameness.”
The weekend was anything but the same for the Crimson. The victory over the Brewers was its first since 1999, and the two conference wins were Harvard’s second and third of the season.
The Crimson next plays Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Springfield before returning to Cambridge to wrap up its home season against East Stroudsburg and Queens this weekend.
Harvard 3, Vassar 2
Former Harvard captain Justin Denham ’02—the Crimson’s main offensive weapon last season—was the line judge on Sunday. Luckily, Harvard wouldn’t need his help—as either a sympathetic official or force at the net—to beat the Brewers (12-4, 7-4).
After falling behind 2-1, the Crimson rallied to take the fourth game and the tiebreak to avenge its 3-0 February defeat with a 3-2 (30-22, 27-30, 23-30, 30-19, 15-11) marathon victory.
With the tiebreak knotted at five, Harvard went on a 5-1 run that all but clinched the win. Kills by sophomore outside hitter Will Reppun and junior tri-captain opposite Russ Mosier gave the Crimson a 7-5 lead.
After a kill by Vassar’s Steve Gilhool pulled the Brewers within one, a Kowell kill and consecutive Vassar errors gave Harvard an insurmountable 10-6 advantage, allowing the Crimson to coast to victory.
“Our philosophy is that when we have the ball, you are going to pay,” Keller said.
Five Harvard hitters recorded kills in the tiebreak, a testament to the offense’s diversity.
“My job is to make the offense as unpredictable as possible,” Bookman said. “The key today was that we passed well.”
During the fourth game—a dominating, 30-19 Crimson triumph—the passing was fluid.
Leading 14-11, Harvard went on a 10-4 run, keyed by two kills each from five different Crimson hitters. The last kill came when junior Juan Carlos Cardet tapped Vassar’s return right back over the heads of the Brewers’ unprepared defense.
“We wanted to go at a couple of their blockers that weren’t that big or agile,” Bookman said.
Although Harvard played superbly to begin and end the match, sandwiched in the middle was a stretch of mediocrity.
During the second and third games, the Crimson struggled to build momentum. Virtually every time Harvard began a rally, Vassar senior Jesse Lam countered with a decisive kill. Lam entered the contest averaging 4.46 kills per game, good for third in the EIVA,
But even the best player on the league’s No. 2 team was not enough to down the Crimson.
Harvard 3, NJIT 0
The first point of the match seemed to tell the story for Harvard in its 3-0 (30-23, 30-22, 30-24) win over NJIT on Saturday.
It, like the match, was over almost before it started, as sophomore outside hitter Juan Ramos slammed the ball down for a kill after only three NJIT touches.
There was no looking back for the Crimson, as it stormed to a much-needed conference win.
“Coach Keller had an inspiring pregame talk today,” Bookman said. “He declared today was going to be the day. Everyone came into the match feeling awesome.”
Harvard traded points with the Highlanders at the beginning of the match, finding itself still tied at 11-11. Finally, behind the serving of Ramos, the Crimson opened up a 17-12 lead.
By the time NJIT took a timeout at 22-15, it was too late. With steady blocking from Kowell, Harvard held on to take the first game 30-23.
“All season we’ve been plagued by a slow start,” Mosier said. “This was an enormous conference win.”
The Crimson slowed down slightly at the beginning of the second game, but again came back with a big surge to take the lead.
This time, it was Reppun serving when Harvard extended a 13-12 lead to a 17-12 advantage.
The Highlanders again tried to slow the Crimson’s momentum with a timeout, but Harvard pulled further ahead, 27-18.
NJIT tried to sneak back in with a serving run taking them to 28-21, but Keller called a timeout to get the Crimson’s focus back.
“I just wanted to talk,” Keller said. “I could sense that they were starting to relax too much.”
Moments later, Kowell closed out the game with a kill in the middle of the court.
Harvard opened the third game as it had the first—with Bookman’s serving and some hard hitting propelling the Crimson ahead, 5-1.
The Highlanders took one last gasp, and it looked like Harvard might have a tougher match on its hands when the NJIT evened the score at 10.
“We had stretches of errors,” Bookman said. “But we pulled away in the middle of the game, which is a crucial time.”
In the same fashion as the first two games, the Crimson moved ahead 15-11 on serving from Bookman and Ramos.
The Highlanders took a final timeout, which upset Ramos’ serving streak and sparked a series of side-outs.
Harvard finally escaped from this rhythm to take the game, 30-24.
“We needed to break the cycle,” Keller said. “Our goal is to put ourselves back in the playoffs. It’s a matter of coming out and executing.”
—Staff writer Lande A. Spottswood can be reached at email@example.com.
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