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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.
BALL STATE 3, HARVARD 2
The Crimson improved slightly on last season’s effort against the Cardinals, as this year it took the match into five sets. The two foes traded games until trading games was no longer an option, with Ball State ultimately avoiding a zealous Harvard comeback in the fifth game and eking out a victory.
The Cardinals jumped out to an early 3-1 lead in the final set and, after a period of sideout volleyball, were able to extend the margin to four late in the game. With the match seemingly in hand for Ball State, the Crimson rattled off three points to make things very interesting at 14-13. A quick conversion off serve receive snuffed the drama.
“Many times in the fifth game, it’s about who wants it more,” White said. “[Ball State] thought we were going to roll over once it was 14-10, but I was really proud of everyone for the fight they put up.”
Throughout the match, Harvard seemed to rally when it needed to most. Down 2-1 in sets and trying to will the contest to a fifth, the Crimson put down eight balls on 22 attempts without a single hitting slip-up.
Harvard availed itself of the Cardinals’ many service errors, particularly in games two and four in which Ball State recorded eight a piece. The opportunistic Crimson made the opposition pay for these preventable gaffes and nabbed both sets.
The Cardinals’ slew of service mistakes was somewhat predictable, however, on account of their aggressive service game. The visitors ripped seven aces and made siding out an arduous task for their opponents.
“[The Cardinals] were high risk, high reward from the service line,” noted White, a regular serve receiver. “When [the serve] was in, it was putting pressure on us, getting us off the net so we were out of system.”
Ball State’s domination in other areas of the game offset—and even outweighed—its statistical shortcomings from the baseline. The Cardinals won the kills battle 65-45 and thus tallied significantly more assists in the process. Their back row play was likewise commendable, as evidenced by their 48 digs and the Crimson’s struggle to put away points at times.
“I felt like we were hitting some good shots in between the block, over the block, and inside the block,” White said. “[The Cardinals] just seemed to be there every time, which is frustrating…. As the season progresses, we’re going to try to develop new shots…so we’re not so predictable.”
Harvard posted a .306 kill percentage in its back-to-back, a distinct improvement over last weekend’s mark of .164. As in the previous night’s match, White and Johnsson eclipsed the double-digit kills plateau on Friday, while freshman outside hitter Chase Howard assumed a larger role and pitched in a healthy 10 kills, including the first of his young career.
In addition to his 24 kills on the weekend, White played up 28 balls from the back row. His tenacious defensive play this season has him on pace for a career high in digs and a program record for digs in a single season. If White continues to perform at this pace defensively, he will graduate second on Harvard’s all-time career digs list.
—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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