With a crowd of just 105 people on a Wednesday night, Harvard men’s volleyball played through one of their smallest home game attendances so far this season – but certainly not the least exciting. The team came into their match against Merrimack under the weight of a two-game losing streak and emerged victorious – in more ways than one.
Following last season’s loss in the 2022 Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (EIVA) tournament semifinals, Harvard (4-4) entered the season with optimistic prospects, as the team bore a unique combination of new talent and tournament-seasoned core. Yet, early-season games have posted mixed results for the Crimson, as it settled into a game pattern of ‘sweep or be swept.’
Luckily for Harvard, Wednesday’s match against Merrimack (5-4) looked to be the former, though not without its moments. While Harvard entered the game having lost its two most recent matches against Daemen (5-1) and McKendree (5-2), Merrimack was rolling off a five-game win streak – and hungry for a sixth.
Harvard started hot into the first set, grabbing the first few early points to bring the team into an early lead. Merrimack’s attempts to answer back left both teams evenly matched for a tense back-and-forth until a serving streak from first-year outside hitter Zach Berty allowed Crimson to break away with the momentum.
Head coach Brian Baise credited the powerful plays in this match to the team’s strategy – specifically, countering that of Merrimack’s #9 Xander Thesz and #13 Matthew Motes.
“Defensively, we’ve focused a little more on their middle blockers,” Baise explained. “We could tell they were getting the ball to them any chance they could. Two really good players, so I knew we had to stop them, slow them down, so that was part of it.”
Harvard continued to ride the hot hand until the Warriors managed to side out on Berty’s serve, making it 16-10. A flurry of service errors from both sides left the score briefly stagnant before Harvard came back on a tear to make it 24-16 – match point for Harvard.
Yet, the game was not quite over. A serve from sophomore setter James Bardin resulted in a point for the Warriors, and they only kept coming. As the Crimson desperately tried to close out the set with a final, last point, Merrimack’s #4, freshman setter Carson Bashford, went on a run of 4 serves to keep the Warriors in the set, and Harvard on the edge.
At 24-20, with momentum primed on the side of Merrimack, Harvard called a brief timeout.
“I think our serve-receive broke down a little bit,” reflected Bardin, when asked about the situation at play. “We just took a timeout and reset, and came back.”
Come back they did. The Warriors’ next serve set up a beautiful kill for sophomore opposite hitter Kade McGovern, letting Crimson take back the rally, and the set.
Harvard stayed strong throughout their next two sets, taking the first point in both to start out, but dropping quickly to a tie afterward. Unlike the first set, Merrimack was able to pull ahead with the lead early on, though a combination of Warriors’ fumbles and Crimson kills allowed Harvard to keep pace. A tense segment in the second set, flavored by a dash of service errors from both sides and back-and-forth rallies brought the game to 16-17, as Harvard pushed to overcome a late Merrimack lead.
Though service errors have served to plague the team during the early beginnings of the season – and are a constant in collegiate volleyball – coach Baise notes a marked improvement for the team and a bright spot in the game.
“We have some guys who can really serve well – good arms, good pace on the ball,” Baise remarked. “We’ve been encouraging them to be aggressive when the toss is good, and the situation is right. We’ve been serving maybe two or three good service matches in a row, so I’d like to think that some of that early work and patience has been paying off.”
This refinement has been fruitful for the team, its players, and especially these sets in question. From its light deficit, the Crimson emerged on a 7-1 run, with a service ace from Berty to pull ahead 23-18.
Following a back-and-forth, it’s ironically a service error from Merrimack that clinches Harvard’s final point, leaving the second set 25-20 in the Crimson’s favor.
This would prove to be deadly for the opposing Warriors: so far in the season, Harvard has never given up a set after being up two to none. As of now, they still haven’t. Both teams fought hard for the lead as shifting hot streaks created a see-sawing scoreboard, but a service ace from McGovern secured a Crimson victory at 25-21.
This sweep was big for Harvard, closing out the team’s homestand with a victory, and for coach Baise, feels especially good. The 3-0 victory was a great testament and reflection of the team’s improvements into the season.
“We’ve played some really good volleyball so far this year, but we haven’t played really good volleyball for stretches at a time,” Baise explained. “So we’ve been good one set, and then not good the next set, and vice versa. [There were a] few small lapses [this game], but we didn’t let them go too long, and that’s why we’re able to get that sweep against a good team.”
Merrimack is a new addition to Harvard’s non-league opponent lineup, and to the men’s collegiate volleyball circuit in general. The 2023 season is the program’s first, as the Warriors join the Northeast Conference (NEC) alongside tough opponents such as Daemen. The Crimson played the new team for the first ever time back in January, where it had also won 3-0.
Bardin credits that prior clash with many of the successes found tonight, and the subsequent regular-season sweep over Merrimack.
“We knew their hitters pretty well,” Bardin explained. “A lot of [their hitters] are fairly one-dimensional, so we had a pretty clear gameplan on how to defend them. We had one our best blocking nights yet, so that scouting paid off.”
Among those blockers, junior middle blocker Trevor Schultz played a key role, with a game-high of 6 blocks. These add to an already accoladed stats sheet, with 1 ace and 5 kills.
“I think Trevor Schultz did a good job closing the blocks today, that’s the best I’ve seen him do,” Bardin said. “I think he, by far, had the most blocks on the team, which is great to see, ‘cause he’s been working that hard these past couple of weeks.”
Another player to watch this game was McGovern, who notched the game-winning ace, while also grabbing 10 kills – leading all players in this match.
“He keeps getting better and better,” Baise said of McGovern. “Better decision making, and so many strengths to his game. We’ve just been focused on him playing to those strengths, and not giving away some of those easy points, and it’s made all the difference for him. The number of matches now he’s put together now has been really impressive.”
Also important have been contributions from Berty and sophomore outside hitter Logan Shepherd, who each brought in 7 kills – which, for the latter, is a season-high.
As for the team, Harvard continues to look forward to its first away games since prior to the Harvard Invitational. The Crimson will face their first EIVA rival, Charleston (10-0), in West Virginia. Charleston is currently ranked No. 2 in the EIVA, while Harvard stands at No. 4.
“The league will be tough,” Baise admitted, “We’ve seen some good teams [in the early season], and so I’m hoping that a lot of our preparation and what we’ve been doing these last 6 weeks will prepare us well.”
Charleston is riding a 10-game win streak, and is currently undefeated in its matches against non-league opponents – their matches against Harvard will be their first taste of league play as well. Last season, Crimson was swept by Charleston in the regular season, losing 1-3 and 2-3 in close matches. Luckily, the team doesn’t seem deterred.
“We lost to them last season, so it’ll be a rough match,” Bardin said. “But they graduated a lot of guys and we’ve got a lot of new guys, like Zach Berty. I think it’ll be a good game.”
Harvard will take on Charleston in back-to-back matches at the Wehrle Innovation Center on the weekend of February 17th.
– Staff writer Amy Dong can be reached at email@example.com