Luke Braswell had his patience tested the last two years.
Until the men’s volleyball season opened in January, Braswell had not played a meaningful match since June of 2014, when he helped Northeastern to a PIAA Class 2A title at Rec Hall.
Having to watch from the Penn State sidelines, even if he wasn’t injured, was less than enjoyable.
“That was tough,” said Braswell, who was recently named to the Off the Block/Springbak Freshman All-American Team. “I tried to play a lot during that first gap year, and then last year I was playing all the time. But it drove me nuts sometimes. It was two long years of not actually getting collegiate playing time that I wanted.”
Following his graduation from Northeastern, Braswell took classes part-time for a year at Harrisburg Area Community College, then had a redshirt season at Penn State. He got in lots of practice time, but could never step onto the Rec Hall floor for a match.
The reason for the delay was the Nittany Lions already had setters on the roster the last two seasons in Taylor Hammond and Zack Parik. Last season, he at least got to apprentice with the duo.
“He understands some things better than your average freshman setter,” coach Mark Pavlik said. “With him, as with most young guys, strength and conditioning is a huge, huge factor. If he can get quicker, if he can gain some movement skills, it’s going to make his setting even better. From the neck up, he understands the game.”
This week — in preparation for the EIVA championships — he was working on the visualization and muscle memory necessary for effective back sets against the No. 4 Princeton Tigers. If Penn State (19-10) wins against them 7:30 p.m. Thursday, it will take on the St. Francis-Sacred Heart winner for the championship, and an automatic berth in the national tournament, at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“My back sets were the first to go and I’m still working on that,” said Braswell, referring to the fact he missed four matches with a concussion. “I need to get more reps. I’m working with the coaches to get back into it.”
This week’s matches feature a little more intrigue than Penn State’s typical foray into the EIVA tournament over most of the last two decades. Until last season, the Nittany Lions had won every tournament title since 1998. An upset at the hands of St. Francis in the semifinals last season ended the run.
Penn State took the regular-season league title again this season, but the conference was very competitive. Princeton took Penn State to five sets in both regular-season meetings, while the teams in the other semifinal combined to win 3 of 4 against the Lions, and they all can smell the possibilities.
“I think everybody in the conference believes that they can be beaten,” said Stephen Braswell, Luke’s brother and an outside hitter for St. Francis. “The beast has been taken down a little bit this year. But they are still a phenomenal team, and they’re still first.”
Should the Nittany Lions and Red Flash both win Thursday, along with the rematch of last year’s upset, the brothers will get to tangle. They met once earlier this year, with Luke missing the other match because of a turned ankle.
“Probably some chatter,” Luke Braswell said of the brotherly intrigue. “There will be a little talking through the net, but it won’t be too bad.”
Luke — who has his team hitting .285 this season and is averaging 10.48 assists per set — said the brothers were pretty competitive up through high school, but with both Division I athletes, “it’s hard to get mad” when they’re together.
“Right now, he’s a young guy on a team and trying to take a leadership role,” Stephen said of his brother. “He’s more focused on his team than what goes on through the net. When we play each other, we’re brothers, but we’re also opponents.”
However, should the teams meet Saturday, this summer might be a different story when they head home.
“It’s not like anyone’s winning the battle in our family — we’re 1-1,” Stephen said. “If we play each other again in the future, if something happens, maybe.”
The main concern for the Nittany Lions, whoever is across the net, is to pick up two wins. It’s no longer a practical certainty, with other teams the tournament now feeling they have a chance.
“Everybody wants their pound of flesh (from us),” Pavlik said. “Some have gotten it the last couple of years. This is what we wanted in the EIVA.”