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This weekend, in a tournament sponsored by the Volleyball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., the Harvard men’s volleyball team played up to the grandeur of the event, claiming the championship trophy after besting Concordia-Irvine and Springfield on consecutive nights.
Junior outside hitter Branden Clemens nabbed MVP honors as the Crimson (8-4, 2-1 EIVA) rebounded from last weekend’s split performance with a pair of four-set victories.
“This tournament came at a perfect time,” Harvard coach Brian Baise said. “We felt a little freer to be a little bit more aggressive…and it worked out.”
HARVARD 3, SPRINGFIELD 1
With the opening set of the final matchup of the 2015 Hall of Fame Morgan Classic hanging in the balance, the hometown Pride (8-5) crowd had found new life.
Seven hundred fans, many of them Springfield partisans, had watched Harvard pull away for a 24-21 lead, but the Pride had defended the next two set points, leading to an increasingly raucous gym and a Crimson timeout.
But with a decisive kill, senior outside hitter D.J. White silenced this atmosphere. The trend would repeat over four sets as Harvard would earn the championship with a 3-1 victory.
“It was really important for us to win that first set,” Clemens said. “It put us in a good mindset…for the rest of the game because we knew that we could play well in this gym.”
Clemens and White both recorded 17 kills to lead the Crimson attack. From the setter position, sophomore Nick Bendell matched a season high of 49 assists.
After dropping the second game, Harvard again faced the fury of the Springfield crowd at the beginning of the third. However, the Crimson responded with a 9-5 start. Although the Pride fought back to tie the score, Harvard ended on a 4-1 run to take the set, 25-23.
The most lopsided game belonged to Springfield, which opened up a six-point advantage in the second set before winning, 25-21. White and Clemens combined for only four kills in the period.
In contrast, the pair notched nine over the course of the final game. Until the last point, neither team led by more than three, but the Crimson put together a tournament-ending 4-1 streak.
“I thought it was one of the better volleyball matches in terms of level of play of both teams that we’ve played this year,” Baise said. “We’ve struggled at times to close out sets this year…. We were able to do that against Springfield.”
HARVARD 3, CONCORDIA-IRVINE 1
A fast start hardly sufficed to describe Concordia-Irvine’s first-set play against Harvard.
The Eagles (7-4, 2-1 NAIA) began with back-to-back 3-0 runs, raced to a .545 hitting efficiency, and finished the game with a tidy 25-17 victory.
“We sometimes are just slow to start,” Clemens said. “We had a couple dumb mistakes early on that shouldn’t have happened.”
But thanks to a Clemens-heavy offense and a block-heavy defense, the Crimson steadied itself, taking the next three sets and grabbing a 3-1 victory.
The comeback was finalized in the final set when Harvard used a 5-1 run to erase an early-frame deficit. After breaking through a 9-9 deadlock, the Crimson never relinquished the lead, finishing the 25-19 set win with a Clemens kill.
“He’s definitely hot right now,” Baise said. “He’s been great on offense and has bailed us out of a lot of tough situations with some key kills at key moments.... Those are big contributions, and he’s been a difference maker for us.”
Despite the offensive numbers, the Harvard defense may have been the star of the game as the Crimson earned 24 blocks, including a season-high eight from co-captain and middle blocker Caleb Zimmick.
In the middle two sets, Zimmick won five points on rejections. Harvard pulled away late in both games, turning mid-frame deadlocks into 25-21 and 25-19 triumphs.
“We started to block well,” Baise said. “We’ve been working a lot on our defense, [and] that was the difference on Friday night.”
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