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Stone Cold on the Road: Crimson Sweeps NJIT in Final Away Games

On Feb. 1 in 2019, the Harvard men's volleyball team competes against Ball State University, which the Crimson lost 3-2. Harvard has two more games, both against George Mason, before it will head to the EIVA Tournament from Apr. 19-22.
On Feb. 1 in 2019, the Harvard men's volleyball team competes against Ball State University, which the Crimson lost 3-2. Harvard has two more games, both against George Mason, before it will head to the EIVA Tournament from Apr. 19-22. By Brendan J. Chapuis
By Amy Dong, Crimson Staff Writer

Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.

Redemption came calling for the long-patient Harvard (9-13, 2-6 EIVA) men’s volleyball team this past weekend, as the team prevailed against the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) (8-16, 2-7 EIVA) to snatch two back-to-back wins.

Following a punishing –– though exciting –– weekend against powerhouse Penn State (22-3, 8-0 EIVA), Harvard entered this past weekend with a less than stellar conference play record. The team had yet to clinch a single victory against a conference opponent, all with less than a month to go to EIVA tournament play.

As Friday night found Newark battling the lingering East Coast spring chill, Crimson waged war inside at the NJIT Wellness and Events Center.

An attack error from NJIT kicked off the match to give Harvard the early lead, and Harvard took off and ran with it. Sophomore setter James Bardin posted a solid five-point serving streak, as an equal effort from the Harvard kill and the NJIT fumble gave Harvard a strong 5-0 start, and the Highlanders used their first timeout –– one of the fastest that the Crimson has forced this season.

Though a slew of opponent grit and service errors brought the game back to a level back-and-forth, the Highlanders weren’t able to recover from the early deficit. A great set by junior Ethan Smith found its mark at the palm of Bardin, whose kill launched the start of a second siege to get the Crimson to a 14-6 lead.

The gap proved to be too large for NJIT to bridge, and after a sweet set by Bardin made way for a powerful spike by junior Trevor Schultz, Harvard captured the first set 25-19.

The Crimson found similar success in the second set, with back-to-back service aces from Schultz giving Harvard another early, comfortable lead. This time, the Highlanders fought back to overcome a 9-3 deficit, eventually capitalizing on a Bardin service error to knot the game up at 12-12.

Both teams rode a tense point-for-point segment all the way to 18-18, as the Highlanders’ persistence kept the Harvard gap from widening. However, a McGovern kill restarted the engine, fueling a four-point Harvard run to break away.

Another kill from the sophomore eventually ended the set at 25-22, once again in Harvard’s favor. Now up 2-0, Harvard’s first EIVA victory lay only one set away.

Never one to take the theater out of the play, the Crimson switched up the script in the third set to give NJIT a turn with the early lead. A service error from Harvard, coupled with a service ace by the Highlanders brought NJIT to their first 3-1 lead.

Though the Crimson battled back, it took the team until 13-13 to finally catch up to their opponents, thanks to a huge block from Bardin, Smith, and senior Ryan Hong that shut down an attempt by NJIT’s Alessandro Negri.

At this point, the Highlanders took a page out of Harvard’s own book. The two teams wrestled for dominance on the scoreboard until 18-18, where dual service aces by Martin De Chavarria –– a three-time Spanish League Champion and a former player on the Spanish Junior National Team –– set a fire under NJIT that could not be cooled. A kill from De Chavarria gave NJIT the set, 25-22, and got the Highlanders back in the match.

Aware of the danger, Harvard stuck close to NJIT in the fourth set, and a deadlocked set found its first three-point gap at 16-13 in favor of the Highlanders.

Though a kill by Hong attempted to make some headway in the difference, and the trusty triage of service errors kept the pace humble, Harvard never fully caught up in time. A kill by NJIT’s Negri snatched the set from under Harvard’s nose, ending the fourth at 25-23 and setting the stage for a winner-take-all fifth set.

Prior to New Jersey, Harvard had only won a single fifth set so far this season. The start to the fifth appeared to be a continuation of that trend, as NJIT grabbed an early 3-1 lead resembling one, not unlike that of the third set.

Harvard kept the Highlanders close, and extremely so. A bad set by NJIT setter Griffin Fieseler gave Crimson the opportunity to tie up the game at 3-3, and this time, Harvard would not let go. Though a fifth set is played to 15, the teams barreled forward into a tie at 14-14, keeping the game alive as 15-15 and 16-16 ties slipped past on the scoreboard.

A McGovern kill on a serve by first-year Zach Berty finally pushed the Crimson into their first match point. A subsequent topper by Berty allowed NJIT a chance on the attack that was swiftly blocked by the server himself, ending a grueling set at 18-16 for Harvard and giving not one, but three players –– McGovern, Berty, and Bardin –– some season-high blocking stats to go along with it.

The teams came back for another taste on Saturday. Before the match, Harvard took to the sidelines, as NJIT took the court to honor their graduating seniors and graduate students during their scheduled Senior Day.

The first set appeared to pan out almost identically to Friday, as an attack error from NJIT brought forth an early Harvard lead. After taking a shaky splash of errors to get their sea legs under them, Harvard racked up numbers on the scoreboard, as a huge kill from Smith lit the way for a four-point streak for Harvard to make it 9-5.

Another back-and-forth plagued the game pace, as the Highlanders struggled to come close to a lead. A big kill by McGovern gave Harvard a critical 20-16 lead, and only a few rallies later, Hong hit a beautiful cross-court smash that sealed NJIT’s fate, taking the first set for Harvard at 25-20.

If NJIT was intimidated by this first-set resemblance, it didn’t show. Refusing to fall back into Friday’s lacking pace, the Highlanders stuck close to Crimson numbers, as the lead swapped every few rallies.

A critical four-point streak during the latter stages of the game led through the efforts of three separate NJIT attackers, dealt a crushing blow to Harvard’s chances as the Highlanders pulled ahead at 22-20. A McGovern kill attempted to answer back, but a service error, combined with an NJIT service ace, ended the set at a close 25-22.

Harvard came back into the third set with guns blazing, as a kill by Berty seized the first lead, and the only lead, for Crimson of the set. Fueled by service errors and a healthy dose of attacking vengeance, Harvard ran up the scoreboard. A service ace by Schultz gave Harvard a 14-8 lead that only continued to grow, as another ace by McGovern found the team at 17-10.

A service error by the Highlanders brought Harvard up to 24-19, and an attack error by NJIT’s De Chavarria one play later ended up slipping harmlessly into the net, awarding the Crimson the set by a score of 25-19. The set also brought further Friday deja vu, as Harvard found itself once again two sets up, to the Highlanders' one.

If there’s one team who’d rather not relive a Friday loss, it would have to be the Jersey opposition. Where the third set had gone the way of Harvard, the fourth set would be violently torn in the other direction. From the beginning, NJIT carved out a lead that would never quite be relinquished.

Where a Berty kill had snatched a quick lead for Harvard in the last set, NJIT’s block on Berty’s kill attempt gave their fourth set a subsequent quick start. Crimson matched the Highlander’s pace until 4-4, where a tough service error by McGovern began a seven-point leak, helped along by huge NJIT block assists that was only stopped by a later McGovern kill.

This unfortunate run left the score torn apart at 11-5, and another kill by NJIT’s Jens Feldthus, one of the honored graduate students of the day, marked the beginning of another streak from which the Crimson never recovered.

The fourth set was closed out by a McGovern attack attempt that had been blocked by Feldthus and De Chavarria. Compared to a weekend lush with close sets, the ending for the fourth was more than a little demoralizing for a Harvard team that had been dominating for the majority of Friday: 25-11, in favor of NJIT.

Clearly, they were not too demoralized, however. The Highlanders initially appeared primed to run away with the match, as the team snatched an early lead in the fifth set.

Harvard and NJIT traded service errors before the Highlanders went on a tear to score four points in a row, bringing the game to a tough 7-3. The Crimson, unafraid, answered back with its own point streak, with three consecutive kills by Berty tying the game at 12-12.

A powerful ace by senior Will Polster allowed Harvard to finally pull ahead. A De Chavarria kill attempted to tie up the match again, but a huge kill by Bardin would sweep past the NJIT libero to bring Harvard up to match point, 14-13.

A serve by Bardin himself would open up the next, and final rally. A tough receive by the Highlanders gave Crimon the opening to set up an attack by Berty. The NJIT defense ran up to match Berty’s jump, but a clever tool off the blockers threw the ball out of bounds to give Harvard their final point.

The Crimson ended their final fifth set at 15-13, awarding them not only their second win of the weekend to sweep NJIT but also Harvard’s second win against a conference opponent.

“I’m really proud of the guys,” assistant coach Nick Clark stated. “It’s a challenge to play the same team on back-to-back nights. It says a lot about our resolve to win two five-set matches on the road.”

The matches against NJIT at New Jersey close out the Crimson’s road games for the season. Luckily, it’s not the last of the volleyball regular season yet. Harvard will welcome their final EIVA conference opponents –– and final opponents –– of the regular season, George Mason University, at home court in Cambridge next week.

Next weekend will also feature the team’s own Senior Day. Current seniors on the team consist of Ryan Hong and Will Polster, faces from this past match, as well as libero Alessio Pignatelli and setter Will Sorenson.

“We are looking forward to celebrating our seniors next weekend at home!” Clark remarked. And Harvard will look forward to all that and more as its season reaches a critical juncture.

— Staff writer Amy Dong can be reached at amy.dong@thecrimson.com

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