With one last swing from Cal Mende, rising high to pound an overpass into the floor, the Penn State men’s volleyball team finally could relax.
Even with nothing to play for, George Mason was not about to make it an easy night for the Nittany Lions.
Thanks to Mende’s huge 24-kill night, No. 13 Penn State survived 22-25, 25-21, 25-19, 28-26 Saturday night at Rec Hall to close the regular season and wrap up the outright EIVA regular season title.
“Once we hit our stride, I think Cal started to heat up in Game 2,” coach Mark Pavlik said. “The next thing you know we are going toe-to-toe with them, and I think we sustained our level of physicality pretty well.”
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Penn State will host the conference tournament, with the semifinals Thursday. Sacred Heart and St. Francis meet in the first match before the Nittany Lions face Princeton. The finals are Saturday.
The defending conference tournament champion Patriots found out before the match they were mathematically eliminated from this year’s tournament, making Saturday their season finale.
Mende was putting divots in the Rec Hall floor all night. He put down his two dozen kills while hitting .543 and adding a pair of blocks.
“It kind of crept up on me,” the 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman said. “(You) start putting a few kills up on the board, you get into a groove.”
On Senior Night to celebrate the final seasons for Chris Nugent and Matt Callaway, the Nittany Lions (19-10, 11-3) got 10 kills from Nugent and six kills and three blocks from Callaway. Aidan Albrecht added 16 kills, Royce Clemens picked up 13 digs, and Luke Braswell had 44 assists and 10 digs while directing the offense to .342 hitting.
“Nobody really backed off and tried to be safe,” Pavlik said. “I think at this point in the season, that’s the sign that I’m carrying through with this. That’s the type of volleyball that we need to play to be successful.”
Another stat strongly in the Nittany Lions’ favor was a 40-28 advantage in digs.
“Defensively, we had a very good night tonight,” Pavlik said. “I think we’re making it tough for teams to score against us.”
George Mason (13-14, 6-8) saw Jack Wilson post 21 kills and four aces, Radoslav Popov pick up 11 kills and Langston Payne collect five blocks as the Patriots held a 10.5-6 blocking advantage.
The fourth set was a nail-biter, complete with 19 ties and five lead changes as well as George Mason denying four match points. One of them was even reversed on a video review when it was decided Braswell touched the net on what looked like the kill to end the match. That left it up to Mende to put the match away with the last of his huge swings.
“It felt nice,” Mende said of the last point. “It was very satisfying.”
The first set was knotted at 18-18 before a four-point Patriot run which included a pair of Wilson aces. The second set also was tied late at 21-21 before the Lions took the last four points, including a huge kill by Mende over three Mason blockers.
In the third, the Nittany Lions used a 6-1 run to take the lead for good and closed with a big kill from Callaway in the middle.
Despite George Mason not having anything to play for but pride, the Nittany Lions were glad their opponent put up a good fight.
“I definitely appreciate a team that comes in and, ‘Hey, let’s just have a good, fun last game,’” Callaway said of the Patriots. “It definitely makes it better for us because I don’t want any team to come in and roll over against us.”
Note: George Mason sophomore and State College graduate Aaron Cymbor closed his second season with the team appearing in three matches and posting a pair of aces.