For the Harvard men’s volleyball team, there was no warm-up match to ease into the 2017 season. Rather, in mid-January the Crimson (1-3) suffered a rude introduction to its new campaign, as it made the trek to Chicago to see some of the best volleyball the country has to offer in top-10 teams Lewis and Loyola (Ill.), both of whom dealt Harvard losses.
The Crimson returned to Cambridge licking its wounds but nevertheless knew it would emerge all the better for the effort it put forth in Illinois. Kicking off a five-game home stand, Harvard hoped to show visiting Fort Wayne and Ball State a few newly learned tricks it picked up from its Chicago-based adversaries.
Harvard routed the still-winless Mastodons (0-8) in four sets on Thursday night and then concluded the double header the following evening with a 3-2 loss at the hands of the No. 13 Cardinals (5-1).
“Coming off an 0-2 start to the season,” co-captain Casey White said, “we wanted to get a better feel for how we’re going to fit in the league.”
Almost exactly a year ago, the Crimson visited both teams in a similar back-to-back format. Harvard fell short to Ball State 3-1 before it ended the road trip on a high note and trounced Fort Wayne in straight sets.
HARVARD 3, FORT WAYNE 1
The Crimson built upon its recent success at the Malkin Athletic Center by securing its first victory of the season there. With Thursday’s triumph, Harvard, having won seven of nine at the MAC last season, improved its home mark to 29-8 since 2014.
After the teams traded points throughout the first set, the Crimson barely escaped with the 28-26 victory, requiring win-by-two sudden death. With the score notched at 20, the receiving squad sided out 12 consecutive times down the stretch, giving way to a dramatic opening frame finish.
The only blemish in an otherwise consistent match for Harvard came in the third set. Trailing 22-21 and just four points from a clean sweep at the hands of the Crimson, Fort Wayne sided out and rode outside hitter Nick Smalter’s serve straight to 25. Two Harvard timeouts proved futile in halting the four-point rally, the longest scoring streak of the closely contested set.
“We’re a pretty young team,” White admitted. “I think we got a little tight at the end of the set, and when we get nervous, we tend to be a little predictable, like where the offense goes.”
Game three marked the only set in which the Mastodons outplayed the Crimson at the net, posting a .378 kill percentage and recording a match-low four errors, while Harvard tied its match-high in attacking blunders with five.
The Crimson’s superior .345 mark across the four sets—compared to Fort Wayne’s .258—was more indicative of its dominance up front, not to mention its 9-6 advantage in blocks. While hitting errors plagued the Mastodons’ match, Harvard’s net game was particularly clean, as the team’s 3.5 errors per game fell well short of the existing number on the season, 4.75.
“[This weekend] we focused on cleaning up our offense…” White said. “We were able to focus on hitting clean shots and getting first-ball kills.”
Three Crimson hitters finished with double-digit kill totals: White, junior Brad Gretsch, and freshman Erik Johnsson, with Gretsch’s 16 leading the way. As of Friday night, they account for 65% of Harvard’s offense this year.
These attacking efforts helped junior Marko Kostich tally 46 assists on Thursday night. Kostich and Fort Wayne sophomore Michael Keegan, who connected with freshman Pelegrin Vargas for a match-high 17 kills, finished level in dishes.
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