UNIVERSITY PARK — Technically speaking, the Penn State men’s volleyball team has five starters returning from last season’s team.
In reality, it’s more like eight.
It’s a nice problem to have — a little depth and experience to start a season.
Despite losing two key pieces from last year’s squad, the No. 8 Nittany Lions have plenty of talent lining up Thursday night for the season opener against No. 5 UCLA in the Outrigger Invitational in Honolulu at 9 p.m.
The tournament continues with matches against host Hawaii on Friday night and No. 10 Ohio State on Saturday.
“Those are the ones you measure against early on,” said head coach Mark Pavlik, who is beginning his 19th season at the helm. “You say, ‘Where are they at? Where are we at? What do we have trouble with them? What do they have trouble with us? You further color in your blueprint for the year.”
While the lineup changes appear minor in number, they certainly are big. There’s nothing like losing an All-American outside hitter who was the go-to person to terminate a play — Joe Sunder — and a four-year starter at setter in Edgardo Goas.
The groundwork for replacing Goas was laid a year ago as Taylor Hammond spent a redshirt year apprenticing. It means most team members, other than the freshmen, know him pretty well. There will just be an adjustment period as everyone gets used to the timing of a new quarterback.
“It always is for a first year setter,” Pavlik said. “Even though Taylor was here last year and most of these guys — he’s not an unknown. But you never know how long it takes a first-year starter at the setting position, once the lights go on, the whistle blows, the scoreboard starts recording points against somebody in a different uniform, how long doe it take him to say, ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.’”
There will be less of an adjustment period for the new outside hitter to replace Sunder — Aaron Russell will slide from the middle, where he started all but one match last season. Also working on the left side will be his brother, Peter, along with Kyle Mars and Scott Kegerreis. Peter Russell started about half the season on the left side in 2012.
The Nittany Lions did lose another occasional starter from last season with Jace Olsen transferring to Hawaii, but they still return two others to the right side in Tom Comfort and Nick Goodell.
Two seniors return to the middle in Nick Turko and Ian Hendries, and Connor Curry is back at libero.
So even with several key changes, Penn State is hardly rebuilding and the hard part will be finding the right combination with all that experience.
“No matter who we played, what combination we put out there, we were successful,” Pavlik said. “At what level ultimately are we going to be able to be successful, that remains to be seen, but I like the steps these guys have taken.”
Pavlik also knows the instincts of him and his staff will be tested in finding the right on-court combination each match.
“This might be a year where it might be more incumbent upon the staff and me on the bench to know how much rope to give,” Pavlik said, “and when to yank that rope and get somebody else in. Nothing seems to faze this group. They’re just steady and hard working.”
The team put together another solid campaign in 2012, finishing 23-6 and a perfect 14-0 in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association. They should win the conference again, although several programs have improved and should give Penn State some tests.
Still, there is no reason to think this team will not follow in the footsteps of the previous 14 seasons in which the team won the EIVA and was in the national semifinals.
“It’s not a sprint, it’s a race that goes on for four months and we’ve just got to be good at the end,” Pavlik said. “We’ll get a feel for where we truly are when we have UCLA, Hawaii and Ohio State at the end of this week.”