Coach Brian Baise not only has the challenge this week of trying to guide Harvard to its first conference title in program history, but trying to achieve the feat in the aftermath of his team experiencing first-hand the effects of the Boston Bombings last week.
Harvard after finishing the regular season in third place and clinching a postseason berth will open the four-team EIVA Tournament against the No. 2 seed George Mason at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in University Park, Pa. The winner of that match will play the winner of the semifinal match between Penn State and Princeton in the conference championship on Saturday.
Off the Block conducted an interview with Baise earlier this week to discuss his team’s recent success, the chances of Harvard winning an EIVA championship and what it’s been like for his players and him to live in Boston following the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon.
Check out the transcript from the interview below.
Off the Block: Coach, you open the EIVA Tournament with a match against George Mason in the semifinals on Thursday. How do you feel your team’s are chances going into the conference tournament?
Brian Baise, Harvard coach: I think we have been playing some of our best volleyball here at the end of the year, which is always what you hope for. The last few weeks of practice we’ve been the most focused and most competitive we’ve been all year I think. That is always a good sign and always reassuring. I think we are going to be able to compete, and we got a good chance. All four teams have a good chance this weekend. Not any team would surprise me if they ended up the winner. George Mason has beaten us twice this year. They have a real good team and a lot of experience. It will be a tough match, definitely.
OTB: Talking about George Mason, as you said they beat you twice in the regular season. What adjustments do you need to make to beat them in the conference tournament?
BB: We just played them a few weeks ago, so I feel like we know them quite well. I think we understand what they are going to do and what kind of game they are going to play. They of course know us just as well. They can get real hot in their serving. We’ve got to receive their serve well. We can’t let them go on too many serving runs. They’ve got a few guys that can rattle off four or five points at a time. It makes it tough to catch them at that point. We’ve got to get their good servers out of there quickly. I think we have to block well, and I think those two things are key. If we can defend them and receive their serve and let our offense do its job and help out our block-row defense with our block I think we’ll be competitive.
OTB: This your program’s second consecutive appearance in the EIVA Tournament. How much has last season’s experience in the tournament helped your team in preparation for this year’s tournament?
BB: We’ll have to wait and see, but I can tell you it’s a totally different feeling at this point. We lost just one senior starter from last year. We are going in and know exactly what to expect. We know what the arena is going to feel like. We know George Mason. Both teams basically return same teams [from last year] and are veterans. I think we have more confidence. We are a little bit more relaxed. We’ve lost to those guys twice, and we feel like we are ready to get one to them.
OTB: Talking about your team’s confidence. You guys had that huge regular season victory against Penn State. How much does a win like that give your team confidence that you can beat anyone going into the conference tournament?
BB: We were the only team to beat them this year and that feels great. To their credit they ran the table the rest of the league season. I think it helps a lot. We feel to have beaten them once and been pretty close to George Mason a second time, we are going in with a feeling that we can compete with all these teams. I think it will make a difference for us if we do get [Penn State]. It helps your mindset going in. You have fewer questions about yourself and reaching our potential this year.
OTB: One player I did want to ask you about was outside attacker DJ White. As a sophomore he was named to the all-conference team and had more than 3.00 kills per game average. Can you talk a little bit about his development this season as a player?
BB: He contributes in a lot of ways for us. He can serve-receive. We look to him on offense certainly. He can hit for a high percentage and make very few errors. He’s been great. He continues to get better — he had some health problems earlier this year. I think he is moving and jumping better now than he has in a while. We always need him to have a big match to compete at this level.
OTB: Coach obviously your team doesn’t live in a societal vacuum and isn’t immune to events that happened in Boston last week. What has the past week been like for you and your players living in the Boston area?
BB: That’s a tough question. You always as a coach and a team try to stay focused on the task at hand and what you have in front of you and what your goals are. Obviously, there are more important things going on in the city and for the people in this community last week. I think in that way we are reminded of that. Volleyball in the end is just a game we are playing, and we love to be able to play it and these guys love to be able to attend a school like Harvard. We try not to get too distracted by it. When we are in practice, we are in practice. I think the guys and the Harvard community handled it really well. We’re fortunate that we didn’t have a direct impact on our student-athletes. I think at this point we are looking forward to leaving for Penn State on [Wednesday]. I think that when that bus pulls away we will be pretty focused on what we want to do.
OTB: If you are able to get the two victories this week and win your first EIVA championship in program history, what would that conference championship mean to your team and Harvard.
BB: It’s never happened before, and it’s been on the back of our minds for a long time. It’s our goal every year, but the last few years we’ve been taking small steps, and in some cases big steps, towards it. I think these guys are ready to do it. There are three other good teams that are looking to do the same thing. It would mean a tremendous amount. Symbolically it would show where this program has come and where we hope it is going. Our goal is to compete with the best, whether it’s the East Coast, the Midwest or the West Coast. It would be a wonderful experience for our guys, and a lot of fun. We don’t talk too much about it, to be honest. We’ve talked a lot about our Thursday night, and we’ll see what happens from there.