When the pressure is on, and a volleyball team needs a big kill either to lock up a win or stave off a loss, you need that go-to guy.
But does Penn State have that go-to guy this year?
That is among the major questions greeting the No. 9 Penn State men’s volleyball team as it opens another season this weekend, hosting 7 p.m. matches at Rec Hall with Mount Olive on Friday and Alderson-Broaddus on Saturday.
The Nittany Lions had yet another solid campaign in 2017, winning the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, advancing to the national championship tournament and falling to Hawaii in their opening match. They enter this season once again the EIVA’s heavy favorite.
“Penn State has always been the dominant team on the East Coast,” redshirt sophomore setter Luke Braswell said. “We’re trying to prove that we’ve got that team again. But also we want to push past that and break into the top 5.”
With more national championship tournament appearances than any other men’s program, Penn State has had its share of stars and standouts, especially those go-to guys in the clutch. Among them in coach Mark Pavlik’s tenure have been future Olympians Carlos Guerra, Matt Anderson and Aaron Russell. Last season, the team relied on Chris Nugent, but his graduation has left an opening for the job.
“Every team has challenges to work through every season,” Braswell said. “We worked out guys into that ‘Chris Nugent’ spot. ... There will be some points in the season when we’re getting things ironed out, but I think pretty soon we’ll be firing on all cylinders.”
Nugent missed a number of games last season to necessitate a little apprenticeship for that clutch role. Among those who came up big at various points last season were senior outside hitter Aidan Albrecht and sophomore right-side hitter Calvin Mende.
Mende actually had slightly better numbers than Nugent, with 3.25 kills per set and a .294 hitting percentage. (Nugent averaged 3.18 kills and hit .293). Albrecht averaged 2.68 kills and hit .233, with his best stretch over the final month of the regular season.
Throw in the long arms and 6-foot-11 frame of Mende, and it is obvious how the southern California native can have a major impact.
“I definitely found a rhythm toward the end of the season,” said Mende, who also trained for a stretch over the summer with the U.S. junior national program. “I had some good daily habits going, that type of stuff.”
Still, does that mean he’s ready to be the go-to guy to bail out the team when it needs the big kill?
“I think Cal is going to develop into that person,” Pavlik said. “I’m not sure he’s there yet. The good thing is Aidan has been around long enough, he knows what he’s got to do. Cal knows what he has to do. More importantly, Luke is in a situation, he’s been through an entire season, things will come to him differently.”
Another key lineup change is moving senior Jalen Penrose, the previous starter on the right side, to a middle blocker role, a decision Pavlik hopes pays off by keeping the incredibly athletic Penrose on the court. He will join returning starter Kevin Gear and Jason Donorovich, a stronger blocker than hitter, in the position.
“That position will take the longest to work out, and it may never be a one-person position,” Pavlik said. “If we can work it right and take the strengths of both of them, they can score us some points.”
Other left-side hitters include Matt McLaren and Lee Smith, who is returning from a torn ACL, but the Lions may not have redshirt freshman Bobby Wilden for most of the season. He had shoulder surgery late last year and his return is unclear.
The lineup may change frequently this season, but a good way for anyone to get into that lineup is to be ready and successful when the team needs a go-to guy.
“We can do some damage at the end of the year,” Pavlik said. “We can force teams to play some really good volleyball.”