One year away was enough.
A balanced offense and a highly effective defense made sure of that.
Missing out on an EIVA championship last season, Penn State returned to the top with a 25-19, 25-14, 25-20 sweep of St. Francis on Saturday night at Rec Hall.
The Nittany Lions (21-10) had won 17 straight titles before falling to the Red Flash in the semifinals last season, denying a bid to the national championship tournament played on Penn State’s campus.
“We definitely wanted some revenge,” said tournament Most Outstanding Player Chris Nugent, who put down nine kills and while hitting .438.
Penn State will find out when and against whom it plays when the six-team national championship bracket is announced at 1 p.m. Sunday on NCAA.com. The tournament figures to start May 2 in Columbus, Ohio, with the semifinals May 4 and the finals May 6. Depending on first-round matchups, there is a chance the tournament may start as soon as Friday.
The defending champion Buckeyes, the championship hosts, and Barton of Conference Carolinas also wrapped up automatic bids Saturday, with one more late Saturday night for either Long Beach State or Hawaii.
Early leads in all three sets helped capture the 28th league title in Nittany Lion history.
“This whole tournament we kind of had some of our best starts to sets,” opposite Cal Mende said. “I think it shows, especially in this game, coming out hot, coming out focused and ready to go.”
Setter Luke Braswell enjoyed having plenty of choices while directing the offense to .418 hitting. Aidan Albrecht also knocked down nine kills while Mende and Matt Callaway each added six and Kevin Gear had five.
“It’s just awesome that the pass is there and I can set four guys as a time,” said Braswell, who had 33 assists while the team made just eight hitting errors. “I know the ball’s getting put away. If we can do that, blockers can’t key on one guy.”
A lot of credit went to middle blockers Gear and Callaway, who had early kills to spread the St. Francis defense.
“I think the casual fan doesn’t get to understand how important their role was tonight,” coach Mark Pavlik said. “Both of those guys did a wonderful, wonderful job with it. (It was) probably the most thankless role that’s out there.”
Because of that balance, the Red Flash didn’t get their first block until midway through the third set.
On the defensive side, Penn State held an 8.5-2 blocking edge. Albrecht had five and Gear had four to lead in rejections.
“A large part of that was our serving,” Nugent said. “We put them in (predictable) two-pass a lot, and we put up a good solid two (blockers).”
Meanwhile, the Lion back row also frustrated the Red Flash, with a 31-21 edge in digs led by Royce Clemens’ 10, and St. Francis was forced to take 26 more swings than the Lions.
Pavlik said credit for that also went to middles Gear and Callaway, who helped funnel the Red Flash swings to predictable spots.
“Their blocking was definitely something we had some trouble with,” said Michael Fisher, whose 12 kills led St. Francis. “They dig a lot of balls. We kind of got transition swings, (but) we’re a little flat coming out in the transition. Their defense played a big part in them playing well.”
The end result denied St. Francis in the finals for a second straight season, while giving Penn State its 31st national tournament bid — more than any other Division I program.
“They executed a game plan,” added St. Francis’ Stephen Braswell, who had just two kills and hit minus-.027. “They came out with a purpose tonight and when teams come out with a purpose, they’re that much harder to beat.”
Notes: During the match, the three EIVA Hall of Fame inductees for 2017 were honored. The class included Juniata’s Chris Fazio, George Mason’s Ric Lucas and Penn State’s Chris Chase. The 6-foot-10 Chase was a four-time AVCA All-American, three years on the first team, and helped the Nittany Lions to EIVA titles in 1986, ’87 and ’89. He still ranks in the top 10 in numerous program record categories. … Joining Nugent on the all-tournament team were Albrecht, Braswell, Mende, Fisher and Princeton’s Junior Oboh