Last time the Harvard women’s volleyball team played Dartmouth, on Sept. 25, the Ivy League landscape was quite different. Harvard was coming off an Ivy League title the year before, while Dartmouth was fresh off a sixth place finish near the bottom of the league. Both teams were playing in their first conference game, and in a close five-set match, the Big Green managed to eke out a close victory.
This time around, the stakes will be much higher.
This Friday, Harvard (9-8, 5-2 Ivy) will kick off the second round of Ivy League play by taking on Dartmouth (9-7, 6-1) in a clash of the two top-ranked Ivy teams. A loss would see the Crimson drop two games behind first place with only six games to play.
No team in the past decade has won the Ivy League with more than two losses. A defeat here would put Harvard’s loss total for the season at three, significantly reducing its hopes of repeating as Ivy League champions, while a win would bring Harvard into a tie for first in the Ivy standings with Dartmouth.
“We definitely realize the gravity of this game,” said sophomore outside hitter Paige Kebe. “We know that it’s a must-win situation from here on out, for our second half of the Ivy League, and that’s a mentality we’re taking with us to every practice.”
But a win here will be no easy task.
Dartmouth comes into the game riding a five-game win streak, while the Crimson enters having split its last two games against Columbia and Cornell, two teams in the bottom half of the Ivy League. Despite the difference in momentum, though, Harvard is confident in its mental toughness.
“Last week was definitely a reality check, but I’m confident that we’ll do well this weekend regardless,” Kebe said. “Our team has proven to be really resilient and good at bouncing back.”
Dartmouth and Harvard have dominated the Ivy League player awards this season, winning six of the seven Player of the Week awards, including four from Harvard junior setter Corie Bain.
Indeed, each team features a reigning co-Player of the Week, with Crimson senior outside hitter Kathleen Wallace and Dartmouth junior opposite hitter Emily Astarita having shared the honor this past week. Wallace’s play has been crucial for Harvard this season, including this past weekend when she landed two consecutive double-doubles.
“Kathleen is consistently a go-to player, and I love how she has some really momentum-changing kills,” senior setter Hannah Schmidt said. “Sometimes she’d hit the ball, and I’d just be so glad she was on my team.”
Astarita gave the Crimson fits the last time they played a month ago, with a game-high 23 kills. This time around, though, Harvard figures to be better prepared.
“We’re catering practice around how [Dartmouth] plays,” Schmidt said. “They have a few strong hitters that we’re simulating in practice, and we’re also speeding up the tempo of our sets. We’ve definitely changed our game plan since we last played, and I think it looks good on our end.”
Harvard’s game plan isn’t the only thing that’s changed since a month ago. The Crimson roster has also featured quite a few shake-ups since the two teams last played, largely due to the injury bug, which has affected three key players in freshman Christina Cornelius, sophomore Caroline Labanowski, and junior Grace Weghorst. The team has stood steady in their absence but says that they are looking forward to getting the full squad healthy again.
“We’re trying to get everyone healthy as fast as possible, but either way we have a pretty deep team,” said Kebe. “I’m confident that whoever’s healthy enough to play on Friday will get the job done, no matter if they’re a freshman or a senior.”
In the absence of key players, freshman middle blocker Jocelyn Meyer has picked up the slack, averaging 1.46 kills a set over the season and picking up an Ivy League Rookie of the Week award along the way.
The Crimson will look to her and other role players to try to pull out this weekend’s game and maintain its positioning for the Ivy League title going forward.
“Going into this weekend, we know that Dartmouth needs another loss,” Schmidt said. “We have to be the team that gives it to them.”
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