UNIVERSITY PARK — So often it has seemed like a formality.
The Penn State men’s volleyball team has dominated its conference so thoroughly, that it is pretty much expected the Nittany Lions will be playing in the national semifinals the first weekend of May each year.
This season, even though Penn State is again the top seed and won the regular-season title, there is a little doubt. The Nittany Lions could be tested.
Man could bite dog.
Top-seeded Penn State hosts the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association tournament at Rec Hall, opening against No. 4 seed Princeton at 7:30 p.m. Thursday following a 5:30 p.m. contest between No. 2 George Mason and No. 3 Harvard. The winners battle at 7 p.m. Saturday for a spot in the national semifinals at UCLA.
The matches are anything but a foregone conclusion, even with No. 14 Penn State (21-7) holding an 11-1 conference record.
“This is the toughest EIVA that I have had in my career,” coach Mark Pavlik said. “Kudos to Mason, Harvard and Princeton for doing the things they’ve been doing, playing the players they have been playing and using them the way they’ve been using them. You don’t get as many free points off these teams as we did five or six years ago. And with our experience level, we don’t force as many errors as we did in the past.”
Not long ago, Penn State was winning nearly every EIVA match in three-set sweeps.
The Nittany Lions needed four sets to beat Thursday’s opponent, the Tigers, in both meetings this season. They also beat the Patriots in four sets at Rec Hall and in five sets in Fairfax, Va. The Crimson proved to be the toughest, losing 3-2 in Rec Hall and sweeping Penn State 3-0 in Cambridge, Mass.
The Lions are looking a little mortal at the moment.
“It seems every year some team thinks they’re going to be able to beat us, and every year we still won,” said senior middle hitter Ian Hendries. “But we definitely don’t have that … big guy anymore, but we’re an all-encompassing team. We feel it. We have a target and we know that.”
With less experience than most Nittany Lion teams over the past decade, and no high-profile player who can be a go-to person when the team is desperate to terminate the ball, it also makes this team a little different.
“Instead of having one guy where, before the serve you can look over and say, ‘He’s getting the ball, stop him,’” Pavlik said, “now you have to figure out a way to make sure the first contact enables the second contact to be smart and accurate … and hopefully somebody has the advantage. … It becomes a total team effort.”
How dominant has Penn State been in the EIVA?
Before the loss to Harvard, the Nittany Lions had won 51 straight regular-season conference matches, and had dropped just five EIVA regular-season matches since the start of the 1994 season. Since 1988, they have a 263-12 conference mark and have 18 regular-season EIVA crowns.
The dominance has continued into the conference tournament, winning 14 straight dating back to 1998 and only losing three EIVA tournament matches all-time.
It has translated into a near-automatic ticket to the national tournament. Penn State has been to the championships 27 times, more than any other program. Twice the team has walked away with a national title.
While winning the EIVA is anything but a lock, holding home-court advantage also may not provide as much help as usual — the Nittany Lions have hardly played there. Penn State has had only one match on the floor of the main gym since beating Princeton on Feb. 23, including spending 10 of 11 matches on the road. Of their 13 home matches all season, five were played in the south gym, including two contests last weekend, because of various other events using the main gym.
“It’s almost like we’re not used to our home gym, which is pretty strange,” Hendries said. “But other than that, we’ve played enough in it. … It will be weird in here.”
To get his team more comfortable to their “foreign” home court, Pavlik has been holding many practices the last few weeks in the main gym instead of in the south gym, where they usually practice.
Even with the up-and-down season they have turned in this year, the Nittany Lions know they are still expected to win, and have a tradition to uphold that dates back to when some team members were barely in elementary school.
“I’m a little nervous because we’re finally at a point where’s there’s not a guaranteed next game for me,” Hendries said. “It’s the last year and potentially last game. As long as I’m involved, I’m going to try not to let this be my last game. I wouldn’t say (I am) desperate, but four years of training we’re finally coming down to it.”