Chris Nugent can still feel the pain from last season.
It was the championship match for the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association tournament, a spot Penn State had found itself in for nearly two decades. The championship match was in Rec Hall — as was the national championship the following week.
But instead of taking huge swings for the Nittany Lions, Chris Nugent sat in the bleachers, glumly watching George Mason celebrate its EIVA title, and later Ohio State win the national title, on his team’s court.
“I never want to go through that again,” Nugent said. “If there’s any motivation, it’s to not let that happen again.”
Last season marked the first since 1998 in which Penn State did not win its league title or make the national tournament.
As Penn State (18-10, 10-3) hosts its final match of the regular season Saturday, against those defending-champion Patriots (13-13, 6-7) at 7 p.m., there is much to prove for this team and for Nugent.
Having been the EIVA alpha for so long, last season’s performance was a shock to the Nittany Lions’ system and brought a lot of introspection. And with a rather young roster again this year, it hasn’t been much smoother. They already clinched their third straight 10-loss season after not reaching double digits in losses in any year since dropping 14 in 2000.
They also have lost three regular-season EIVA matches, something the program had not done since they were in the preceding ECVL in the early 1980s.
With a lineup that has changed frequently this year because of youth, inconsistency and constant injuries, the Lions are still finding their way.
“I wish I wasn’t saying this in April,” coach Mark Pavlik said. “We’re still in that position where I think we’re fighting through having our play dictated by our opponent. How hard do they want us to play? How hard do we need to play? Instead of saying, ‘You’re getting the best of us.’”
The one person Penn State will need both on the court and off dictating play this weekend, next weekend and, they hope, beyond that, is Nugent. Last season’s EIVA co-Player of the Year leads the team with 274 total kills and 3.30 per set.
Nugent figured to be the next top hitter after the graduation of Aaron Russell two seasons ago, and for most of last season he was until he started to run out of gas, Pavlik surmised, toward the end while carrying a heavy load for the team.
This season, an injury forced Nugent to miss six matches, which also helped refresh him.
But Nugent knows, healthy or not, the expectations that weigh on the program. He has heard it from alumni and knew it before he even got to campus.
“You can’t match it anywhere else, the legacy and the culture of Penn State,” Nugent said. “We try to do our best but those are tough shoes to fill. (We are) looking forward to the challenge.”
He will do all he can to get the Nittany Lions playing in top form again, and to make sure there is no falling short on goals. Once was enough last season.
He will earn his degree in economics in three weeks, but the national championship match is the same weekend as Penn State’s graduation.
When it comes to missing out on major events, Nugent certainly has a preference.
“I really hope I miss it,” Nugent said. “I didn’t walk at high school graduation, so I can skip college too.”