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Harvard Men’s Volleyball Struggles Out of the Gate This Season

The Crimson dropped four of five to open the season, but has won two straight since.
The Crimson dropped four of five to open the season, but has won two straight since. By Zing Gee

The Harvard men’s volleyball team (3-4) got off to a tough start this season, losing four of its first five matchups against mostly high-ranked teams before bouncing back with two wins last weekend. The Crimson fell against two volleyball powerhouses in its season-opening trip to California, No. 12 USC and No. 18 California State University Northridge. After two postponements, the team came back to get a win against Sacred Heart before losing its home debut at the Harvard Invitational against Grand Canyon and UC Santa Barbara. Last weekend, it racked up encouraging wins against Merrimack and Lincoln Memorial. Despite these setbacks, the team has displayed confidence that its early-season struggles have provided valuable lessons for upcoming Ivy League conference play.

Harvard 1, USC 3

On Jan. 11, Harvard began its season out west in Los Angeles against No.12 USC. Harvard surprised the home team in the first set, winning 25-22. However, USC came back in the second set, using a 7-0 scoring run to end the set with a scoreline of 25-18. While the Crimson put up a good fight, keeping USC within striking distance, it wasn’t enough to stop the Trojans, who carried the two remaining sets with scores of 25-20 and 25-22. However, the first game of the season showed some encouraging signs, as junior libero Xuanthe Nguyen pointed out.

“I think at some point it really spurs us on at the beginning of that match: ‘Let’s cause an upset, let’s really try to show USC who we are.’ I feel it’s nice to see the fight from the boys, especially to take a set off USC,” Nguyen said. “I feel that it was a very positive game. It was quite a challenge to take the first set, but we did and it was great. But I think after making a few mistakes, then our confidence was shattered. We did fight back and kept it close, but losing those few points really cost us the game,” the junior added.

Harvard 1, CSUN 3

The following night, the Crimson faced off against another strong team in Los Angeles, No. 18 CSUN. The Matadors had the better start of the game, dominating the first set with an 8-3 scoring run to end the set on a score of 25-20. Despite this, the Crimson came back in the second set on a high note, winning 25-19 by keeping a three-point lead or more against the Matadors throughout the set. However, CSUN got the better of Harvard in the third set, winning 25-14. The final set was a thrilling affair, with the two teams keeping the scoreline within a point of each other for most of the set. While Harvard had a four-point lead for a moment, the team wasn’t able to close the deal and lost 29-27 after an extended and grueling set.

While the scoreline was similar to the team’s previous game, Xuanthe noted some subtle differences. “We kind of made up where we are already strong: our pins weren’t that strong against USC but in CSUN, we managed to improve the efficiency. While our middles were really effective in the USC game, they weren’t as effective against CSUN. I feel like we made the necessary adjustments but we needed to maintain the level we had done the previous night while making those improvements,” he said.

Harvard 3, Sacred Heart 2

After two road defeats, the Crimson returned to the east coast, ready to face off with new opponents before finally making its February return to play in Cambridge. However, its two scheduled match-ups against D'Youville and Daemen Universities, both New York opponents, were postponed due to inclement weather. Thus, Harvard had only one road opponent before its first home games: Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. Harvard had a great start to the game, winning two sets in dominating fashion by scores of 25-19 and 25-23. However, the Pioneers came roaring back to take the next two sets. In the decider, Harvard proved its mettle, winning 15-9 to seal its first win of the season.

“It was definitely good to get that win,” Xuanthe said, “but it probably shouldn’t be as tight as we were. We comfortably took two sets off of them but we let them get two on us. While the fifth set was pretty decisively our win, as I previously mentioned, there was a lapse in our focus in those two sets. So while it’s good to see that we can win the games we should win, an area we should work on is to maintain that focus to make sure we get the job done.”

Harvard Invitational

After three road games, Harvard returned to Cambridge over the first weekend of February to host the Harvard Invitational against quality opponents No. 2 Grand Canyon University and No. 12 UC Santa Barbara. The team was in good spirits and ready to face its first home games of the season, as junior libero Callum Diak attested to.

“We had come off some strong weeks of practice and going into this Invitational,” Diak said. “It’s our first home games, it’s our home court and we wanted to show up in our home and protect our court. And we also felt good even though we played GCU and UCSB, both solid teams, but we knew both these games were winnable.”

During the first game against GCU, the Crimson was unable to contain its opponent. In all three losing sets, Harvard managed to keep up with GCU during the first moments of the set, only to lose momentum and let the Antelopes get away with the victory by a score of 25-14, 25-16, and 25-14.

“The way I would put it is that our peak points were higher than their peaks, but they just played better for longer. I’m impressed with the highest levels that we played but there were a couple of runs that GCU went on that knocked us out of the game,” Diak said.

Junior Callum Diak goes up for a kill in a match-up against Charleston last season. Diak has 10 digs for the Crimson this season.
Junior Callum Diak goes up for a kill in a match-up against Charleston last season. Diak has 10 digs for the Crimson this season. By Zing Gee

The following day, the Crimson returned to its home court at the Malkin Athletic Center to face its second ranked opponent of the invitational, No. 12 UCSB. While Harvard put up a good showing out of the gate, including taking a two-point lead in the middle of the second set at 17-15, the result was familiar: a 3-0 loss with a scoreline of 25-19, 25-23, and 25-18.

“We were hoping to take the lesson from GCU into that game and apply it, but it ended up being a similar thing, that when we were playing at our best, we were able to even build a lead on them but then, every now and then, they just go on a run. So if we can’t stop those runs right away, then sometimes the game can get away from us,” Diak said.

Harvard 3, Merrimack 0

Last weekend, Harvard continued its homestand against two other teams: Merrimack and Lincoln Memorial University. Coming into the weekend, Harvard was determined to break its losing streak. On Friday, this determination was exemplified by the first set against Merrimack, when the Crimson defeated the Warriors by a tight scoreline of 25-23, with a crucial kill by sophomore outside hitter Owen Manning and a Crimson triple block. That would be Merrimack’s closest moment to a set win. The following sets were easier for the Crimson, with successive scoring runs which led to Harvard set wins of 25-20 and 25-16.

Harvard 3, Lincoln Memorial 2

The following day, Harvard faced off against Lincoln Memorial University. When the Crimson won the first set 25-22, it was the beginning of a thrilling game. In the second set, the score was repeatedly tied between the Crimson and the Railsplitters, with Harvard taking a four-point lead at 16-12, only to see the score tied again. LMU finally came out ahead in the final moments of the set to win it 25-22. The third set was also a tight affair, but a 5-0 LMU scoring run in the middle of the set allowed the Railsplitters to win it, 25-19. However, the Crimson wasn’t discouraged and fought back in the fourth set, winning it 25-22 to send the game into a decisive fifth and final set.

The dramatic final set began as a close game, with Harvard eking out a 9-7 lead in the middle of the set, courtesy of an ace by junior hitter Logan Shepard and a kill by sophomore outside hitter Zach Berty. Despite this, the Railsplitters came back, tied the set at 11 all, and even earned two match points. At this moment, the growth and maturity of the Crimson’s players were finally put on display, denying LMU the win with its defense and forcing two attack errors, which ended the set on a Harvard victory of 17-15.

This action-packed series of games is only the beginning of the Crimson’s season. This weekend, Harvard will begin its EIWA conference play with two matchups against the University of Charleston at home in Cambridge. The games, on Friday, Feb. 16th at 5:00 p.m. and Saturday, Feb. 17th at 1:00 p.m., will be broadcast on ESPN+.

—Staff writer Nghia L. Nguyen can be reached at

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