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FAIRFIELD, CONN.—“When we come to play ball, we’re the best team on the court,” said Harvard men’s volleyball coach Rob Keller.
His team came to play last night.
Harvard (11-5, 8-4 EIVA Hay) downed Sacred Heart (13-10, 4-8), 3-1, on Senior Night at the Pitt Center in both teams’ final game of the season.
“It has nothing else to do with the other team and how they play,” Keller said. “When we play ball, we can beat anyone, and when we don’t we can’t.”
Prior to the game, the Pioneers honored both their seniors in a short ceremony, but after the opening serve, it was the Crimson who paid the highest tribute to its seniors—with a win.
“When we were down in the fourth set and huddled in the timeout, the guys were like ‘let’s do this, let go win this for Mike and Alex,’” said tri-captain Michael Bookman, referring to himself and fellow tri-captain Alex Kowell.
It meant a lot to him. But it has been the way the team has played all season—they’ve played for each other.
“The most rewarding thing this year and all four years has been the guys I’ve played with,” Bookman said. “We play for each other. Sure, you play for Harvard and because you love the game, you love volleyball, but it’s the other guys on the team whom you really play for.”
The Crimson outscored the Pioneers 20-13 following the timeout, including a 7-3 run to close the set, the game, the season and a career for some.
Kowell, a 6’6 middle blocker, almost single-handedly won the game in the final moments. With the score tied 23-23, he gave Harvard its first lead of the fourth set and then went on to give the Crimson five of its final seven points.
It was ‘almost’ single-handed, only because Bookman was there on each play, setting each of Kowell’s powerful overhands down the center.
“I was a middle blocker myself,” Keller said. “And I’ve got a special place in my heart for them. They work the hardest and Alex works harder than most.”
The middle was the key for Harvard last night, as it has been for most of the second half of the season.
“The outsider hitters have had some issues with consistency this season,” Keller said. “We’ve depended a lot of the middle and they’ve really stepped up. When guys are putting the ball away, you go to them.”
The Crimson started the game trying to work outside, but it wasn’t working. Harvard lost the first set 30-23 and was trailing 20-17 in the second before Keller called a timeout and the Crimson came back to take the set 30-28 and turn the game around.
“Keller’s always left the offensive decision making up to me,” said Bookman, the team’s four-year starting setter. “We began the game setting to their weakest blockers on the outside, but they played really good defense. I should have continued doing what’s been working for us all season—feeding the middle. I probably waited a little to long to switch from the outside.”
If he needed a hint to change up the plan, Keller wouldn’t tell him, but Kowell was more than willing.
At key points, Kowell let everyone know he wanted the ball. Trailing by a set and leading by a point in second, 29-28, Kowell yelled for the ball—for the first time in the game—just as Bookman was about to set. Bookman set it straight to Kowell but the Pioneers saved it. When the ball came back over, the pair repeated the same play—this time ending in an authoritative spike down the center, tying the game at a set a piece.
Harvard’s other middle blocker, junior Juan Carlos Cardet, was equally impressive.
“Juan Carlos probably played the single best game of his career,” Bookman said. “He blocked, he killed, he put us over the top. He was the difference in the game.”
Still, it was the Bookman-Kowell combinations that proved the most memorable and dramatic—changing the momentum at critical points.
“Two of the biggest reasons I came to Harvard were Mike and Alex,” Keller said. “The whole team was wonderful, but it was really those two who drew me in. They’ve always been leaders. They have a star quality that goes beyond the sphere of volleyball on the court. I’m going to miss them.”
They’ll miss you too.
—Staff writer Timothy Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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