Harvard men’s volleyball belongs to the EIVA, an eight-team conference that stretches from a southeastern extreme in Charleston, W.Va., to a northwestern tip in Cambridge, Mass.
In the regular season, all teams play each other twice. By themselves these matches matter little—win all 14 contests, and you get justifiable pride but not much else.
However, the two-month conference gauntlet builds up to something that truly does matter: a playoff berth. Every year, the top four EIVA teams convene for a season-deciding tournament, and the winner of that joust heads to the NCAA tournament.
Naturally, the Crimson understands this procedure. Haunted by a pair of losses last weekend, now tied for fourth with the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Harvard (11-10, 7-5) enters weekend matchups against Princeton (3-9, 3-17) and the Highlanders of NJIT (8-16, 7-5) with the possibility of either clinching a playoff spot or seeing its season end in disappointing fashion on its home court.
Put another away: It all comes down to this.
“It’s definitely stressful considering the fact that all three of my years here, we’ve made it to the conference tournament,” captain Branden Clemens said. “But I think we realize that, and there’s a sense of urgency in that we need to really be on top of our game this weekend.”
The stakes loom especially large for outside hitter Clemens, outside hitter Alec Schlossman, and libero Alister Bent, the three seniors on this year’s team. Friday’s matchup against the Tigers marks Senior Night, and a smattering of alumni will be on hand to watch the competition.
But the more hyped contest arrives the following afternoon, when the Crimson squares off against NJIT, the other program tied for fourth. Depending on other results, the contest could be the last match of the season for either team.
“Everyone’s focused,” Schlossman said. “We know we’re not guaranteed a playoff spot…. We just need to treat it like any other week.”
After six weeks of competition, the EIVA remains a muddled picture. At 11-1 in the conference, Penn State occupies the top spot, but no other team has clinched a playoff berth. Besides Harvard and the Highlanders, two 8-4 teams—St. Francis and George Mason—are also fighting for survival.
Playoff scenarios are sufficiently complicated to require the use of a spreadsheet. For now, the EIVA’s top five teams control their own destiny. Win out, and they are guaranteed a tournament berth.
In the Crimson’s case, splitting the weekend would force the team to rely on other factors—most likely a poor performance by George Mason—to squeak into the playoffs. Meanwhile, dropping both contests would unequivocally end the season.
Harvard players would like to foreclose that second possibility Friday night with a victory over Princeton. In late February, the Crimson swept the Tigers in New Jersey, and the season has not improved much for Princeton since then.
A year after making the playoffs, the Tigers enter this weekend riding a nine-match losing streak and stuck in seventh place. On the season, opponents have outhit Princeton .310 to .214, and no Tiger ranks in the top five in the conference in any major statistical category.
“I don’t try to think too far ahead,” Schlossman said. “We have Princeton on Friday, so that’s our main focus.”
NJIT has shown more life, rebounding from an 0-10 start to the season to launch a six-match winning streak in March and climb into playoff contention.
Most of the team’s offense flows through junior outside hitter Jabarry Goodridge, who has matured into perhaps the top threat in the EIVA. A slender 6’4”, the Barbados native has posted a remarkable 4.44 kills per set, best in the conference, and ranks second in kill rate at .317.
In the Highlanders’ first matchup against Harvard—which the Crimson lost in five sets—Goodridge racked up 20 finishes, albeit on 47 attacks.
But Harvard will counter fire with fire by trotting out Clemens, who has reached double-digit kill totals in 17 of the team’s 21 matches. The captain boasts a powerful jump serve and has hit .311 on the year.
More than personnel, the Crimson has the advantage of location, as both matchups will take place beneath the familiar lighting of the Malkin Athletic Center. That visual factor, combined with the emotional effect of a home crowd, promises to boost Harvard.
But in many ways, uncertainty remains. It is a satisfying fact of sports in general, and men’s volleyball in particular, that by this end of the weekend, a four-team lineup will have eradicated any doubts.
“It’s crazy how it’s fully coming to an end,” Clemens said. “For me, these two games could potentially be my last, so I’m ready to give it everything I have.”
—Staff writer Sam Danello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.