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Sometimes David really does slay Goliath. Despite competing against three nationally ranked teams in the 50th Asics Invitational Tournament hosted by the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Harvard men’s volleyball team came out on top of its five-team grouping.
The Crimson won three matches on its first day of play, beating No. 5 Stanford, No. 8 UCSB and University of the Pacific. The team’s only loss came at the hands of No. 15 California Baptist.
Harvard’s 3-1 record places the team in the championship match Saturday night at the Thunderdome against the winner of the second pool, No. 4 Long Beach State.
“I think we came out pretty good, especially because it’s so early in the year,” co-captain Chris Gibbons said. “Usually we’re not playing matches this early. We’ve only had nine practices since we came back from winter break. All the guys were happy about the way we played and the teams we beat, and so were our coaches.”
The Crimson got off to a quick start, beating Stanford in two straight games, 29-27 and 25-20, in the best-of-three-games format of the tournament’s opening round.
“Stanford is usually a team [with which] we’re competing for players given they’re on the same caliber academically,” Gibbons said. “We’ve lost quite a few recruits to Stanford, so it was nice getting the win against them our first time playing them.”
According to co-captain Nick Madden, several participants in the UCSB tournament have played against one another before, providing another source of motivation.
“The west coast has a lot of good beach volleyball, and club volleyball too, so a lot of our recruits are from out here, especially from the senior class,” Madden said. “It feels great to be beating them. Not only guys that would have come to Harvard, but guys that all of us played against growing up who played club volleyball. It gets really competitive, and a really intense rivalry.”
After defeating Stanford, the Crimson went on to face Pacific and prevailed in just two games once again, 27-25 and 25-19.
Harvard’s third and final morning match came against Cal Baptist. After falling in the first set, 23-25, the Crimson bounced back to win the second game by the same score. But the team could not keep up the momentum in the third set, falling by a score of 15-10.
“We played a ton of volleyball today, so getting energy for every game was a big challenge,” Madden said. “I think we mainly lost because it was our third game in a row, and we were pretty exhausted by the third game of the third match.”
The Crimson went on to play UCSB in the afternoon and got off to a slow start in the first set, falling by a score of 11-25. But Harvard bounced back quickly and rallied to win the second game, 25-20, and prevailed by a tight 18-16 margin in the final set of play. Harvard hadn’t faced the Gauchos since being swept by Santa Barbara last spring.
“It was nice to get that victory, especially given the first game,” Gibbons said. “They sort of dominated the first game, so it was a testament to the focus of the team and the fortitude that we had in order to come back and win those next two sets to take the match. I think we’re showing some good signs of what’s to come in the season pretty early on.”
The Crimson, which went 18-9 last season, enters 2014 returning nearly all its starters, along with the addition of three freshmen who have already made significant contributions on the court.
“We’re looking to have another strong year,” Gibbons said. “[Freshman center] Nick Bendell has come in to play a big role in taking over the setting game. We have a good senior class; we’re looking to have a good year and a lot of good underclassmen that are working hard to support it. The freshmen have been adjusting really well to jumping into college volleyball and having fantastic games so far.”
The Crimson did not play in UCSB’s invitational tournament last year, but hoped experiencing high level volleyball would prepare the team for the season to come by exposing the athletes to different styles of play.
“I think we had been practicing really well, so we were expecting that we were going to come out hard,” Gibbons said. “We were able to take advantage that Stanford didn’t have the best game against us, and we made fewer errors on our side. We came out confident, we came out playing hard, and we were able to beat some pretty good teams.”
—Staff writer Orlea L. Miller can be reached at email@example.com.
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