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The Harvard men’s volleyball team (15-7, 11-3 EIVA) closed out its regular season this weekend with wins over NJIT (9-16, 2-10) and Rutgers-Newark (9-15, 1-11). The victories clinch the No. 2 seed for the Crimson in the EIVA postseason tournament, which begins in two weeks.
Despite playing the bottom two opponents in the EIVA, Harvard won neither game as smoothly as expected. Both matches went to four sets, and the Crimson collectively suffered a dip in form. Sophomore outside hitter Branden Clemens said that the weekend was a wake-up call for the team as it heads into postseason preparation.
“[The weekend] was kind of a reality check,” Clemens said. “We can’t take any team lightly and we can’t take any point lightly because we always need to be focused and pumped up for every point, no matter who is on the other side of the net.”
HARVARD 3, RUTGERS-NEWARK 1
Rutgers-Newark has only won one conference game this season but came out swinging on Saturday afternoon, stunning the Crimson by taking the first set. The Scarlet Raiders led throughout the set, spearheaded by freshman phenom Jose Mendez, who led both teams with 17 kills on the day. Harvard managed to keep it close early on, but with the score at 22-21 in its opponent’s favor, errors cost the Crimson dearly. Freshman Casey White had two attack errors at the wrong time, and the underdogs clinched the first set.
“We struggled a little bit on Saturday,” co-captain Nick Madden said. “We should not have dropped a game to them.”
Harvard was still not playing the volleyball it was accustomed to through the next two sets. The Crimson hit only .176 in the second and .286 in the third, unable to get into the rhythm which has defined the team at its best.
Ultimately, when it came down to the wire in each set, the Crimson prevailed. Tied at 22 in the second, two clutch kills by Clemens tied the match at one set apiece. The third was even tighter, going all the way to 25-25 before Harvard’s offensive stalwarts, Caleb Zimmick and DJ White, spiked a kill apiece to put the Crimson within one of victory.
The fourth game was when Harvard finally separated itself from its opponents, putting the home team away and clinching the match.
“It took us a little while to figure out our attack and our defense,” Madden said. “When we figured it out in that fourth game, we just rolled over them. It took us a while but we put it together.”
The offense jumped up a gear in the fourth—hitting .448—and the defense held the Scarlet Raiders to an anemic .061. Accordingly, the Crimson ran away to win it, 25-15. Co-captain Chris Gibbons had a strong performance on the day, notching 20 digs amidst what was overall an average Harvard performance.
HARVARD 3, NJIT 1
NJIT was yet another team that the Crimson would have expected to blow by, but that was not the case on Friday evening.
Harvard hit well throughout the match, including a strong performance by DJ White, who hit 16 kills at an efficient .500 clip.
However, a lack of energy on the defensive side of the net proved to be an early equalizer, with the Highlanders able to hang with Harvard’s high-flying offense.
“[Against NJIT] we started off slow,” Clemens said. “We realized that we needed to get things together.”
The teams traded the first two sets, with the Crimson claiming the first and NJIT grabbing the second. According to Madden, the Highlanders were initially playing at a high level—but once Harvard cracked the code, the dynamic of the match shifted.
“We had a couple of lapses, we dropped one game, [and] they were planning really well,” Madden said. “They were passing really well but as soon as we started stopping them on defense, we started pulling ahead.”
The third and fourth sets were not close. NJIT hit at a .421 clip in the opening two games before regressing to only .153 in the latter two. The Crimson was led on both sides of the net by Madden. The senior put together 17 kills to go along with 10 digs, leading both teams in these categories for his eighth career double-double.
Under Madden’s leadership, Harvard closed out the match, 25-19, 25-19. However, all in all, the weekend’s performance was one that the Crimson will look to improve on going into postseason play.
“Overall this weekend wasn’t our best volleyball,” Clemens said. “We are definitely better than how we performed.”
—Staff writer Julian Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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