Penn State volleyball: Nittany Lions recover to beat Ball State in four sets

The start of the match was horrendous for the Penn State men’s volleyball team.

It’s a good thing the Nittany Lions had short memories Saturday.

Paced by brothers Aaron and Peter Russell, No. 12 Penn State rallied to a 16-25, 25-22, 25-16, 25-22 victory over Ball State in rec Hall’s South Gym.

“I don’t think you want to use the video of that match for a ‘how-to’ training video, volleyball-wise,” coach Mark Pavlik said. “I can’t think of a better example to show of the competitiveness and the resiliancy and just the drive of this team and their desire to win, doing whatever it takes, whenever it takes, for how long it takes.”

Aaron Russell put down a match- and season-high 21 kills while Peter Russell had 14 kills, seven digs and five blocks as the Nittany Lions (3-2) won their third straight match and put smiles on the faces of several dozen program alumni on hand for the match.

Freshman Matt Callaway also had five blocks, Nick Goodell delivered three aces and Taylor Hammond gave out 40 assists to go with seven digs.

The Cardinals (1-3) got 11 kills each from Larry Wrather and Marcin Niemczewski, seven blocks for Shane Witmer, six blocks and three aces for Matt Leske, seven digs for David Ryan Vander Meer and 39 assists for Graham McIlvaine.

The first set was pretty close to awful for the Nittany Lions. They never led and saw the Cardinals take nine of the frame’s final 12 points. In all Penn State took 19 swings in the set, put down only six for kills and had six hitting errors. Pavlik compared it to the team’s opening match of the season against No. 6 UCLA, when the Lions had eight kills and five errors and went on to lose in five sets.

“That’s definitely the most uncomfortable we’ve been this season,” said libero Connor Curry, who had a match-high eight digs. “We had a worse set against UCLA, but that was our first set of the year, and if we won the game 25-10 we still would have felt uncomfortable so it was kind of like, ‘Whatever.’ But this one was kind of different in that we were making gross errors that we don’t see in the gym every day, and I think it took a lot from us to turn that around and kind of get ourselves together, put our heads together and try to figure it out. We weren’t just going to fold in front of our alumni and all the people we had back in the gym.”

The showing was so bad, the Russell brothers — who combined for 35 kills by the match’s end — had accumulated just one kill total.

While they knew it was a bad performance, they didn’t have much time to shake off the effects and bounce back in the second set.

“That’s the thing with these guys, it’s not like it stays with them,” Pavlik said. “I don’t remember us being that sloppy for a first match at home.”

Curry said it was “a little bit” difficult to shake off the feelings of that first set.

“It takes spark,” he said, “and it takes a couple plays where you’re like, ‘All right, get going again.’ It’s not just a mental switch. You need to see your team bounce a couple balls, you need to get a couple good touches at the net and turn some points and kind of get back on track.”

The Nittany Lions played just well enough to win the second set. They countered their nine hitting errors with 17 kills, the last of which was a Peter Russell put-away to ice the frame. By that point Ball State had blocked seven Penn State swings to just one stuff for the Lions.

The match was all Nittany Lions after that, however, with an 8-4 blocking edge over the final two sets and more big swings for the Russells as the court opened up.

“We kind of just found what they were doing, what they were being successful on,” Peter Russell said. “We made some adjustments. I thought we executed the adjustments really well.”

It helped having the 10-minute break between the second and third sets for Penn State to adjust and find some holes in the Ball State blocking scheme.

“We were kind of running a lot in the middle of the court,” Aaron Russell said. “We were setting a lot in the middle of the court. We were also trying to get Goodell going too. But I think that we kind of started spreading out the court a little more, setting the left side some more, and I think that opened it up. That had their blockers a little confused and spread out, so we were able to go back to the middle and Taylor was able to feed it around and do well with that.”

Notes: Penn State finished hitting .246 to Ball State’s .257. ... In total, Ball State had an 11.5 to 9 blocking edge. ... The Nittany Lions will take some time off before returning to the court Jan. 31 against Mount Olive in Rec Hall’s main gym.