The Penn State men’s volleyball team is in the middle of the longest and toughest stretch of its season.
The reward at the end makes it all worth while, however.
With a new format this season, the Nittany Lions are the No. 5 seed for the national championship tournament and must win three matches over the next five days to bring back another trophy for their collection.
The good news is, the first two contests will have familair opponents.
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Penn State (24-6) opens action with a play-in match at 9 p.m. Tuesday against No. 4 seed Lewis (23-7). A win sends the Lions to the national semifinals against top-seeded and tournament host Loyola of Chicago (27-1) on Thursday, with all the matches at the Ramblers’ Gentile Arena.
On the heels of beating George Mason last Thursday and Princeton on Saturday for the EIVA title, a run to the national finals would mean Penn State would play five matches over 10 days.
It’s time for all their conditioning drills to be pay off.
“That plays a pretty big role, just the amount of matches we play,” junior outside hittter and EIVA Player of the Year Aaron Russell said. “The competition, too, it’s not going to be any easy matches. It’s going to be three tough matches the whole way and that will take a toll on you not only physically but emotionally and mentally.”
Once reaching this point, the Nittany Lions know they will be facing teams that can hit hard and block well, and those traits also will tax them both physically and mentally.
“Teams have to believe and be convicted in their physicality,” coach Mark Pavlik said. “They have to understand that nothing’s easy. You have to fight through some key points, some key stretches of games and matches. Usually the team that handles that adversity the best generally comes out as the winner.”
With the team riding a 10-match win streak — second-longest among the six teams still alive behind Loyola’s 25-match run — Penn State has reason to feel confident.
“I told the guys today this is probably as relaxed as I’ve been in the last five years of any team that’s reached this point,” Pavlik said. “I just like where they’re at.”
It also has helped the team that its conference tournament was a little tighter and more competitive than in years past.
“It made us flat-out compete,” Pavlik said. “When things weren’t going well and Mason wasn’t letting us off the hook and Princeton wasn’t letting us off the hook, it made the guys uncomfortable. You’re going to have to deal with that discomfort many times this week.”
The Nittany Lions’ win streak began March 22 — with a 3-1 win against Lewis in one of the team’s best performances of the season. Penn State hit .402, with a match-high 22 kills from Russell, 11 from his brother Peter and 17 from Nick Goodell.
The team also had a strong serving night, with seven aces including three from Aaron Russell. The team is coming off a nine-ace night Saturday, with five from Russell.
The win against the Flyers was the final match of seven straight road contests, with a 3-1 loss to Loyola coming the previous night.
“The last time we played them was really a springboard into this last third of the season for us,” Pavlik said. “We had just come off a loss to Loyola, it was a physical loss and there was some emotion to it, and my question at the time was how do we recover from it? I thought we recovered very, very well. ... We’ve just been climbing steadily as a team since then.”
The first match of the evening has No. 3 Stanford (22-8) meeting No. 6 Erskine (21-6), the champion of Division II Conference Carolinas, the newest conference with men’s volleyball. The winner of that match advances to meet No. 2 Brigham Young (21-8) in Thursday’s other semifinal. The winners battle for the title at 8 p.m. Saturday.
The Cardinal and Flyers are the two at-large teams in the bracket — technically the tournament doesn’t begin until Thursday after these play-in matches are held. BYU beat Stanford for the MPSF Conference title, and Loyola dropped Lewis for the MIVA crown.
The only team the Nittany Lions are worried about right now, however, is Lewis in what they hope is the start of a tough but rewarding week.
“We are pretty confident,” Russell said. “The past two years I have been here, I didn’t get much sleep the first two nights. I was pretty nervous. But, I went to sleep fine last night and (Monday) in the gym I felt pretty confortable. I think the guys around me too are pretty comfortable.”