There is no easing into the season for the Penn State men’s volleyball team.
A week ago, the Nittany Lions had not even held their first preseason practice.
Thursday night in the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, they will be throwing on their jerseys for the first time to begin their season, meeting No. 7 UCLA (0-1) at 9 p.m. in the Outrigger Invitational.
Matches with host and No. 14 Hawaii and No. 12 Ohio State follow on Friday and Saturday nights.
Aside from two seasons ago, when Penn State did not travel to Hawaii, this has been a fairly standard way to open the season for the Lions, having made the trip 18 times before. It’s a test right from the start to see how teams from each of Division I’s three conferences stand against the others.
“It gives us a gauge where we are with the California teams,” redshirt sophomore setter Taylor Hammond said. “It’s a starting point. It’s either a rude awakening, or it’s a chance to say, ‘OK, we’re just as good as these teams.’”
It also gives coaches to experiment with the lineup of they want and explore individual matchups, as well as how their athletes handle the pressure of a tough opponent.
“No national championship has ever been won or lost in January,” said coach Mark Pavlik, who will begin his 20th season with 460 career wins. “This is part of a long season, so let’s be smart about it and be prepared to compete, let’s figure out what we are. We could come back 0-3 but we have a great opportunity to see where we are and what we’ve got to do, or we could come back 3-0 and wonder, ‘Are we really that good or is everybody else in the same boat?’”
The team got a nice long stretch of practices in the fall, as well as a handful of exhibition matches, but were off for more than a month before returning to Rec Hall’s South Gym — officially for a practice — last Friday. During that stretch, it was up to the strength and conditioning coaches and upperclassmen to play their roles and have everyone ready for the Bruins, Warriors and Buckeyes on only five days of practice.
“That’s where I hope the captains take care of that — guys that have been here and they know this is what we come back for,” Pavlik said. “It’s ready to go. You hit the ground running. You don’t get the opportunity to spend three of four weeks working your way into it.”
What Pavlik expects to find in Hawaii, and all season, is a veteran team with high expectations.
While there were a number of key members from last season’s team lost, only one full starting position will have a new player.
Brothers Aaron and Peter Russell return to the lineup as the team’s top hitters last season, Matt Seifert is back in the middle, Nick Goodell started about one-third of last season as a right-side hitter, Connor Curry is back at libero and Hammond is running the offense again.
“It’s very comfortable,” Hammond said. “Last year, our first match I was very nervous. We’ve got a lot of veterans, people who have been there before.”
Aaron Russell figures to be one of the top offensive weapons after honing his skills with the U.S. Junior National Team last summer at the Under-21 World Championships in Turkey.
While Hammond ad Seifert are just redshirt sophomores, the rest of those returning starters are older and giving the team plenty of experience from last season’s 23-8 record, EIVA championship and national semifinal appearance.
“Been there, done that, they’ve seen that movie before,” Pavlik said. “… Everybody’s been through it together and I don’t think there will be very many surprises. That in itself enables the consistency of message to be spread through the team when (the coaches) are not the ones initiating the message.”
The path to the national tournament will be slightly different, and it has changed more than once since last season ended. With the addition of another league — Conference Carolinas, which is made entirely of Division II programs but part of the national championship now — it became necessary to expand the tournament. The four automatic qualifiers in the conference champions will be joined by two wild cards, the top two seeds will have byes into the national semifinals and the other four teams will meet in play-in matches two days before the semifinals at the championship site of Loyola-Chicago.
Whatever the format, the Nittany Lions are expecting to win their conference, as they have done each season since 1998, and make another run at a national title.
“Last year we weren’t sure what we were going to get,” Pavlik said. “This year, I think by the end of March we’re going to have some things together, they’re going figure out some things, they have to find their personality a little bit … but expectations here are not any different from any other year.”
Notes: When the Nittany Lions play their home opener against IPFW on Jan. 17, fans will see a slightly different court in Rec Hall. The playing surface was sanded and lightened in color, and Big Ten logos have been added. … UCLA’s starting setter, Steve O’Dell, had three older brothers who attended Penn State, including four-year starting setter Dan O’Dell. Another possible Bruin starter is freshman middle blocker Mitch Stahl, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit and a native of Chambersburg. … UCLA opened its season last Saturday with a 3-1 loss to No. 4 Stanford.