Last weekend saw Harvard women’s volleyball compete in the Northeastern Tournament, the middle trio of the Crimson’s non-conference slate before Ivy League play begins on Sept. 24 at Dartmouth. The Crimson rallied from straight-set losses to Bryant University (5-5, 0-0 NEC) and Villanova University (6-3, 0-0 Big East) to win two sets in a narrow defeat to the tournament hosts, who improved to 4-6 (0-0 CAA) with the win. Harvard’s three setbacks dropped the team’s record to 1-5 as it prepares for the Howard Invitational on Sept. 17-18 in Washington, D.C.
HARVARD 2, NORTHEASTERN 3
The Huskies came out roaring in the first set, winning the first six points of the match behind a pair of kills from Rafaella Lepenioti. They stretched their lead to 10-2 following another kill from Erica Staunton, who would go on to lead Northeastern with 15. From that point, Harvard staged a mini-rally, winning six of the next eight points on the strength of three kills by sophomore middle blocker Ariana White to pull within three points. From that point, the teams traded blows until a Marika Virthe kill secured the set for Northeastern, 25-20. After the Huskies’ opening 10-2 run, Harvard demonstrated its tenacity, outscoring Northeastern 18-15 for the remainder of the first set.
Junior captain Jaimie Rao, a right side attacker from Toronto, Ont., credited the team’s first set rally for their second and third set victories.
“We found our groove as a team and cultivated a competitive energy that had previously been lacking. We knew that the way we started the first set was not Harvard volleyball and played well throughout the rest of the game,” she wrote in an email to The Crimson.
The second set victory continued the weekend-long trend of success above the net, as Harvard recorded more kills than both Northeastern and Villanova despite the losses. In the second set alone, the Crimson racked up 19 kills to take the set 26-24. None was more crucial than Rao’s finish of sophomore setter Ashley Wang’s pass with the score knotted at 24; the momentum-shifting kill increased the team’s energy and helped first-year setter Rocky Aguirre finish off the game with an ace.
“Winning is the ultimate goal, and the excitement I saw in my teammates' faces from that point really meant a lot to me. I rotated off after that swing, but I knew with the energy and momentum we gained from it that my team was about to win this set,” Rao wrote.
The Crimson rode the momentum of Aguirre’s ace into the third set, taking advantage of a few Huskies errors to race out to an early 5-0 lead. From there, Harvard held the tournament hosts at bay for a while, taking an 18-12 lead with another of Rao’s career-high 22 kills. Northeastern battled back, though, claiming seven of the next eight points to tie the score at 19 apiece. Despite the scare, Wang’s kill shifted the momentum back in Harvard’s favor as it went on to win the set, 25-21.
The fourth set was defined by yet another mid-set Huskies run. After a Crimson rally to tie the set with six points apiece, Northeastern, buoyed by the substitutions of Sara Kent and Staunton, went on an 8-2 run to open up a 14-8 lead. From there, they held Harvard at bay, never letting the Crimson within three points on their way to a 25-18 victory.
The deciding fifth set was back and forth from the start, with the teams splitting the first ten points. Harvard eventually broke through to hold the first two-point lead of the set on a block by Wang and sophomore middle blocker Ava Rauser. But the Huskies stormed back, winning the next four points behind a block and two kills from Lepenioti to open up a two-point lead of their own. The Crimson was unable to make up the deficit, and Staunton eventually put down a Liz Carroll set to close out the final stanza, 15-12.
Despite their third loss of the weekend, Rao was proud of the Crimson’s effort.
“We had multiple players step up and make a huge impact on the court,” she wrote. “We have shown that when every part of our game is playing at its potential, we are a total force to be reckoned with. … We all had a year away from the sport, and half of our roster is entirely new to the team. … I'm so proud of the tenacity we have shown, and each time we step on the court, I see a growth in confidence and killer instinct.”
Rao’s 22 kills led the Crimson, while Rauser (two aces) tied Wang, who ranked in the top ten nationally after the Harvard Invitational in aces per set with 0.75. White blocked 7 of the Huskies’ kill attempts, while first-year libero Lindsey Zhang recorded 22 digs. Wang also managed 28 assists in the first triple-double of her career (28 assists, 13 digs, and 10 kills).
HARVARD 0, VILLANOVA 3
In the first set, the Crimson got off to a hot start, taking advantage of a few Villanova errors to win the first three points of the match. The teams then traded blows as Harvard maintained its three-point advantage as late as 7-10, when a missed serve by first-year outside hitter Corinne Furey initiated a 7-1 Wildcat run, leading head coach Jennifer Weiss to call a timeout. She was unable to resettle her team, however, as Villanova came out of the timeout still smoldering, quickly winning three more points behind kills from Riley Homer to open up a 17-12 lead. Homer continued to torment the Crimson; after a kill by sophomore middle hitter Olivia Cooper tied the score at 20-20, Homer put away three balls to open up a lead that the Wildcats would not surrender. It was none other than Homer who ultimately hammered the nail in the Crimson’s coffin, combining with Kiera Booth to stuff Wang’s kill attempt and claim the set, 25-21.
Villanova’s momentum carried over into the second set as the squad took an early 5-0 lead behind a slew of Crimson errors. The Wildcats stretched their early lead to 9-2 as Harvard struggled to win consecutive points. Harvard did eventually manage to curb some of Villanova’s momentum, splitting the next 24 points as the teams went back and forth. But a kill by Madeline Barber opened up the Wildcats’ lead to a set-high eight points, affording them the cushion to weather even a 6-0 Harvard run featuring two kills from Rao and two more from Furey. Ultimately, the Crimson’s valiant rally fell short, as an Averi Salvador service ace closed out the set in the Wildcats’ favor, 25-21.
The third set closely mirrored the second, with the Wildcats racing out to an early 6-2 lead behind three Harvard errors. After the Crimson closed the margin to 12-10, Villanova went on another mini-run behind three kills from Booth, stretching its lead to 17-11. However, down to its last five points at 20-14, Harvard stole the momentum back and went on a run, with Aguirre notching three aces before Wang’s kill gave the Crimson the lead at 21-20. Harvard would hold the lead as late as 23-22, but the Wildcats again stepped up in crucial moments, with Homer putting away a ball to claim the straight-sets victory, 25-23.
Despite the loss, Harvard managed to record 45 kills to outpace Villanova’s 35. The Crimson also blocked three more shots than the Wildcats. Rao mentioned these two significant statistical victories as positive indicators that Harvard can take out of the weekend’s games.
“Our setters ran a great offense this weekend and we have so many terminal hitters. We also have worked a lot on blocking techniques in practice, and our coaches laid out a thorough scouting report on our opponents. All of the preparation we had prior to the match allowed us to score the way that we did,” she wrote.
Rao’s nine kills paced the Crimson, while Aguirre’s run of three aces was enough to lead the team. Meanwhile, Wang managed 14 assists and Zhang 15 digs. Cooper turned in a career-best game above the net with her team-high four blocks.
HARVARD 0, BRYANT 3
A late run was enough for Bryant to win the first set, a competitive affair filled with dramatic momentum swings. The Bulldogs started hot, jumping out to an early 6-2 advantage. This four-point cushion held for a while until the teams started trading streaks. A Haley O’Brien kill extended Bryant’s lead to 15-11 before Harvard managed to rattle off five consecutive points to storm back and claim its first lead of the match at 16-15. Each team then went on 3-0 mini-runs as the Crimson staked out a 19-18 edge. However, Bryant broke the game wide open, winning six consecutive points to push Harvard to the brink at 24-19. The Crimson was unable to answer, as a Riley James kill was enough to win the first set for Bryant, 25-20.
The Bulldogs came out of the gate snarling in the second set, claiming four of the first five points by taking advantage of a few attack errors by Harvard. Throughout the set, the Crimson struggled to gain momentum, failing to win three consecutive points until a small run behind the strength of two kills from Wang narrowed the deficit to 18-20. Harvard was unable to take advantage, though; an attack error shifted momentum back in Bryant’s favor, and the Bulldogs ultimately claimed the set, 25-21, after a Caroline Kennedy kill.
In the third set, it was Harvard who came out strong, eking out a narrow edge before two kills by Furey extended the lead to 5-2. The Crimson held its advantage for much of the set as a slew of Bryant errors allowed Harvard to take an 11-6 lead. The Bulldogs fought back to tie the set at 13 points apiece, but the Crimson quickly regained its edge, managing a 5-1 run to regain a four-point edge on Wang’s kill. Faced with the pressure of a potential fourth set, Bryant snatched back the momentum, with its formidable front line recording four kills and blocking Rao’s attempt to claim its first lead of the set at 22-21. Although the Crimson fought back to knot up the score again at 23-23, Bryant won the last two points of the match behind two Harvard errors to close out the match, 25-23.
Wang recorded 12 kills and four blocks, while Aguirre’s two aces, 11 assists, and 12 digs were enough to pace the team.
-Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.