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Sweep or Be Swept: Harvard Men’s Volleyball Swept in Back-to-Back 3-0 Losses

In April 2022, the Harvard men's volleyball team battled Charleston in a home game at the Malkin Athletic Center, eventually losing in a pair of 1-3 and 2-3 losses to the Golden Eagles. This past weekend, the team faced off against Charleston in West Virginia, once again being defeated in two 3-0 matches.
In April 2022, the Harvard men's volleyball team battled Charleston in a home game at the Malkin Athletic Center, eventually losing in a pair of 1-3 and 2-3 losses to the Golden Eagles. This past weekend, the team faced off against Charleston in West Virginia, once again being defeated in two 3-0 matches. By Zing Gee
By Amy Dong, Crimson Staff Writer

In a season of “sweep or be swept,” Harvard men’s volleyball has been keeping with the trend well, though not always on the victor’s side. The team left Charleston, W.V. this past weekend having lost both games 3-0, swept in their first EIVA league games of the season.

The Crimson (4-6, 0-2 EIVA) faced off against Charleston (13-0, 2-0 EIVA) at the Wehrle Innovation Center for the first and only time this regular season. As for first impressions, there have definitely been better ones. The Golden Eagles came into the weekend having never lost a single game, or even a single set so far this season. Coming out, they still haven’t.

“We were pretty surely outplayed,” head coach Brian Baise said of the weekend stretch. “They were – they are – a very good team, lots of experience, a lot of veteran players and really play all parts of the game well.”

The first game on Friday opened first with a sweet rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by Charleston’s #24, senior right-side hitter Garret Schnitker. The brief atmosphere of levity quickly vanished as the two teams went to business, Harvard grabbing their usual first point of the game before the Golden Eagles answered back.

Though initially an even back-and-forth, with a fantastic service ace from junior middle blocker Trevor Schultz even forcing Charleston to an early timeout, the latter half of the first set found the Golden Eagles with their first definitive lead of the game. A kill by none other than Schnitker put the Golden Eagles up 17-15.

In a volleyball game, the first team to get to 17 in a set tends to win the set 70% of the time. Unfortunately, the Crimson’s luck would not hold out for the 30% in this match.

The Golden Eagles ran with a four-point streak until Harvard finally called a timeout down 19-15. Though the Crimson was able to capitalize on a crucial kill by sophomore Kade McGovern to make it 19-16, the momentum was immediately nullified by McGovern’s service error. The set continued to slip away from Harvard, as handling errors, overplays, and a powerful Charleston wall denied the Crimson from the scoreboard again and again.

Down 24-17, Harvard’s brief glimpse of hope from a point nabbed by sophomore Logan Shepherd was immediately squashed by Shepherd’s service error on the very next play, giving Charleston the first set.

While bouncing back from a loss in the first set isn’t unheard of for Harvard, considering their 3-1 victory against Sacred Heart (3-5, 1-0 NEC) which had started out in the same fashion, the stakes were a little higher, and the challenge was a little tougher. The team seemed to have recognized this, as the group gave their all in the 2nd set.

Harvard grabbed their first point and broke away with a bit of a lead to start off the second. Though Charleston looked to even the field, an energized Crimson sprinted on ahead as a prolific serving streak from sophomore James Bardin culminated in three points and a service ace to open Harvard’s biggest lead of the game at 6-2.

Yet as always, the service error struck again. Though Schultz was quick to grab the point back, Charleston managed to climb back, pushing Harvard’s edge into an evenly matched back-and-forth at 10-5, with Harvard in the lead as both sides steadily swapped points.

When a flurry of Charleston errors just about looked to give the Crimson another chance to run away with the game, a timely Golden Eagle timeout paved the way for a strong kill by Schnitker.

A man that had been able to bring Harvard its sweet start to the game, Schnitker also had the ability to end it. A senior from California, Charleston’s #24 has been having a career season, totaling 96 kills and counting.

The calculated momentum swing gave Charleston the energy for another 4-0 run and cut the Harvard lead almost in half before another timeout for the visiting team was called. Though first-year Zach Berty was able to capitalize on two quick kills to maintain the lead, Charleston eventually came out with the lead after a strategic kill by Charleston’s #9, Luuk Hoge Bavel.

A sophomore from the Netherlands, Hoge Bavel is a top player, not only simply in the U.S., but internationally. The outside hitter had been a part of the Netherlands’ Junior National Volleyball Team, which had won bronze in the 2018 European Championship. Against Harvard, Hoge Bavel was a critical fixture, keeping pace with a gradually exhausting roster as the teams traded hits.

The persistence paid off for Charleston, much to the drained chagrin of the Crimson. At 25-23, Charleston won a hard-fought set off a kill that senior libero Alessio Pignatelli was not able to pick up.

If no team has been able to return from a 0-2 deficit against Harvard, it’s no surprise that the Crimson hasn’t been able to do so either. Staring down a victory condition of three straight sets to win, the third set for Harvard saw the Crimson battling themselves almost as much as they were fighting against their opponents.

Two rallies in, Schultz gave up a point to the Golden Eagles from a wide kill attempt to make it 1-1, and was substituted for sophomore Owen Fanning. The outside hitter came in at a crucial time, as service errors and overhits brought the score to an early Charleston lead at 4-2.

For a Harvard team that had been run through with two sets, Fanning brought something much needed to the court: energy and hunger. A great set-up gave Fanning a clear shot for a kill, which he took with glee, siding out Harvard back to 3-4.

“[Fanning] was on the floor for us throughout our first five matches, and it was really doing some good things,” Baise explained. “We made a couple changes, and he was out of the lineup for a couple games. He’s right there, just helps us in a lot of ways, brings a lot to the team and so when we were down for the last of it, that’s an easy substitution for us to make to see if he can bring some spark.”

While new vigor on the court kept Harvard alive, the remaining struggles from the rest of the roster didn’t seem to ease. An overdig from Bardin sent the ball flying out of bounds to give Charleston a 5-3 lead, and strong blocks stonewalled Berty twice in a row. The only relief provided to the Crimson come from the opponents: service errors from the Golden Eagles themselves.

In part, the Crimson’s experience at Charleston’s Wehrle Innovation Center could be summarized in a rally in the middle of the set. An unexpected play off Wehrle’s ceiling created an awkward bounce that sent the ball flying straight back into Crimson’s court. All but Harvard’s libero failed to react to the unfamiliar direction, and all failed to compensate as Pignatelli’s diving save was rendered futile, giving Charleston an 8-5 lead that it would hold for the rest of the match.

Fanning answered back for the unfortunate point, but an exchange of service errors, kills, and more service errors kept Harvard just behind as the teams continued to rally with vigor.

Luckily for an exhausted Crimson, a break was just around the corner. Unluckily for the team, however, was the exact nature of the break. A brutal kill by Charleston blew past the Harvard defense, but with a condition that raised more than a few objections: the net was shaking, and it appeared that Schnitker had been in it. However, there was no call on the play.

Stepping into his role as captain, Bardin came forward to check in with the officials. In a rules interpretation session that lasted almost two full intermissions, the Golden Eagles and Crimson alike milled around the net – chatting across lines – while Harvard’s captain bent over pages of paper with a courtside referee.

The call was ultimately not ruled out, awarding Charleston the point to make it 12-9. In the next play, Harvard was once again pushed out 13-9, and Bardin was substituted for senior setter Will Sorenson.

“[Sorenson] plays with a lot of energy, really smart player, really high volleyball IQ,” Baise said of the substitution choice. “Certainly thought it was worth seeing what he can bring, and if he can get some momentum going on our side.”

And get momentum he did. Harvard managed to side out early, and a sneak attack from Sorenson in the middle of the court caught the Charleston defense completely unawares, cutting the deficit to 13-11 for the Crimson.

Yet, just as the tide began to turn, Schnitker returned to keep hope just out of reach. A strategically angled kill off junior middle blocker Ethan Smith’s hand got a point for Charleston’s #9, followed by a service ace to boot. A good block from Smith answered back to keep the score within three before Schnitker returned with a powerful back-attack that pacified the scrambling Harvard defense at 21-15.

While the Golden Eagles’ wall has yet to be defeated by pure power, Crimson was able to pick up a few stray points through deliberately angled plays. However, Harvard’s defense struggled to match Charleston’s pace, as a pattern of pitting single defenders against Golden Eagle dominants continued to leave the Crimson trailing at 23-18.

A critical misplay off a serve gave Charleston match point at 18-24, though a subsequent, classic service error from the opponent only delayed the inevitable, invoking a massive groan from the home crowd.

An attack from Charleston’s Hoge Bavel, facing a lone Harvard blocker, clinched the match for the Golden Eagles at 25-19, and the first EIVA matchup for both league teams.

“They put a lot of pressure on their opponents, and we struggled to respond to that pressure, to put together any sort of points going streaks,” Baise explained of the defeat. “Our good plays tended to be pretty isolated, so it felt like we were playing catch-up.”

Unfortunately for the Crimson, storm clouds were only just brewing. If Friday was brutal, Saturday was a bloodbath; with no player-sung anthem to start off the matinee, the teams dug in fast, as McGovern seized the first point of the day only to be countered by Schnitker a play later.

A determined Harvard surged forward into an early lead, managing to even fend off a kill attempt by Schnitker early into the game with a solid block from Shepherd and Co. Yet Charleston came back strong, bringing the two into their business-as-usual, tight equilibrium.

Interestingly, Schnitker’s presence within the early set was greatly reduced in comparison to his lights-out performance the previous night, potentially attributed to a subtle change in Harvard tactics.

“We felt like we actually defended pretty well the first night. Other than [Schnitker], we did a pretty good job slowing down their offense beyond," Baise observed. “We knew [Saturday] that we had to try to do something to slow down [Schnitker], but then shifting to him, do you give the other guys a chance to play better and give them a little more space?”

This was a dangerous line to walk, and considering the Golden Eagles’ immediate shift in their offensive power vacuum, potentially a deadly one. Par for the course, a fantastic diagonal kill by Shepherd was nullified by a Harvard service error, to give Charleston a chance of their own. Not to be forgotten, Hoge Bavel breached the Harvard defense almost thrice in a row to make it 8-6.

A set by Bardin found Berty, who crushed the ball to make it 10-7, yet a triage of service errors scatters the potential momentum back to the winds. The Crimson scrambled together points on the heels of multiple fumbles from the Golden Eagles, but a quick timeout from Charleston rectified their problems while only accelerating Harvard’s.

A Cinderella run by Berty, who nabbed three points for the Crimson in a row, was quickly flushed out by an ocean of service errors and mishandlings, making it 21-17. It was the Golden Eagle show from there, as all points for either side originated from Charleston kills or errors.

A final dive from Harvard, hoping to keep the ball alive to no avail, left the first Saturday set for Charleston to take: 25-19.

25-19 was the final set on Crimson’s Friday match against the Golden Eagles, but the team on the court struggled to bear resemblance to the same hard-fought Harvard the previous night.

Just like Friday’s 2nd set, Harvard came out rolling with a 2-0 lead, marred only by a brief service error, and an incredible one-handed set by Bardin connected with Schultz for a big kill to make it 3-1. Yet as Charleston clawed their way back, Harvard’s team finally failed to maintain their past intimate equilibrium. An exchange of service errors prefacing an angle-changing Golden Eagle kill from the center caught Harvard off guard, and off the lead – which they would never regain.

Fanning was once again substituted, but the bleeding continued. A one-handed save-turned-kill by Schnitker, almost a poetic parody of Bardin’s early play, catapulted Charleston into a hot streak that even a timeout from Harvard failed to stifle. Unable to properly convert, the Crimson could only watch as the score slowly slipped from their fingers, going from 7-6 to 15-7.

“They blocked really well,” Baise evaluated. “I thought we serve received well, or serve received pretty well [Friday]. [Saturday], we didn't have a great match receiving their serves. That, against a disciplined team, and a veteran team like they are – anytime we’re running our offense from 10-15-20 feet off the net, they’re gonna make it tough for you.”

One bright spot in a devastating second period, however, saw the Crimson finally adapt to the rafter play in Wehrle Innovation Center – a play off the ceiling, handled and killed, got Harvard their first point in a long while. Yet, the losses continued to pile up, as a confident Charleston closed off a languishing Crimson 25-11.

With a prior loss from Friday night and the challenge of the deficit, the energy from Harvard going into the 3rd set was almost nonexistent, and understandably so. It would not get better.

For the first time this weekend, the Golden Eagles won the first point of the set with a kill by Hoge Bavel. With the dominant duo of Schnitker and Hoge Bavel, an iron wall of Charleston defense, and a very late timeout from the side of Harvard lending no help to the dominant state of the momentum, a joyless Crimson could only attempt to survive the onslaught.

A Sorenson substitution halfway through the set at 14-6 did little to drastically change the outcome. Aa hit off the Harvard wall by Charleston claimed the set and the sweep for the West Virginians, ending at 25-10 – the Crimson’s worst margin of the weekend.

It was a rough go for a team who had come into a weekend looking to nurture a winning streak, and a big hit on the stats page, as Harvard will enter into conference play 0-2. Luckily, Coach Baise seems confident in his team’s ability to come back from the weekend.

“Not too concerned with us bouncing back, mentally or emotionally. We’re a pretty resilient group and I think this group likes to work,” Baise said. “We’ve been really good coming back after not playing too well. We’ve so many new starters out there, and we’re such a young team that there’s gonna be some ups and downs.”

More critically, the Crimson’s match-up next weekend is against Princeton (4-8, 1-2 EIVA). Princeton also comes out of this weekend with a two-game losing streak, but that doesn’t mean they are to be underestimated – not only another league rival, but they were last year’s EIVA Champions. Crimson will need to do the hard work of facing off against another top-division team while shaking off the pressure of their current losses.

“Obviously we’re focused at this point on how we’re gonna respond to this weekend. Princeton’s really good this year, and I think it’ll be similar to Charleston, so we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Baise explained. “I think our offense will be our focus this week – why we couldn’t score this weekend, little bit of backward defense. I think we need to dig a few more of their shots and ways we can control it, and then run our offense back at them. But till we can really get our offense clicking at a good rate, we’re always going to be battling from behind against these really good teams in our league.”

Harvard will take on Princeton in back-to-back matches at Dillon Gymnasium on February 24 and February 25. In their last games of the month, the team will aim to close out February strong against their first Ivy match-up of the season.
— Staff writer Amy Dong can be reached at amy.dong@thecrimson.com

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