As the Penn State men’s volleyball team wrapped up its practice late Monday afternoon in Rec Hall’s South Gym, the team gathered in a circle for a short talk.
First, head coach Mark Pavlik and his staff covered a few points for their team to concentrate on this week, especially on their ability to close out sets and matches.
Then it was time for the team captains to speak, first Matt Callaway, then Matt Seifert. The latter, a fifth-year senior, got to the point quickly in his low baritone, reminding his younger teammates the importance of the next three weeks.
“Some of the guys are younger and they might not have the experience,” Seifert said afterwards about the talk with a team that has five seniors and two juniors.
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He may not be the most prolific of players offensively, but more than once he’s had conversations with setter Taylor Hammond, a fellow senior, to get him the ball more. On Monday he was telling the rest of the Nittany Lions to have the same attitude.
“If the pass is there, give me the ball,” Seifert repeated what he told Hammond, and then the team. “I just want a lot more of the guys to have that mentality where, they want the ball, they want every set, they’re eager to be in that situation and they’re confident that they’re going to put the ball away.”
I just want a lot more of the guys to have that mentality where, they want the ball, they want every set, they’re eager to be in that situation and they’re confident that they’re going to put the ball away.
Matt Seifert’s message to his teammates this week
The clock is starting to click pretty loudly for Seifert, Hammond, Zack Parik, Spencer Sauter and Andrew Roberts, the other seniors, but there is urgency for all the Nittany Lions.
They begin hosting the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association tournament Thursday at Rec Hall, with No. 2 seed George Mason and No. 3 Harvard meeting at 5 p.m., before No. 4 St. Francis faces No. 1 Penn State at 7:30 p.m. The winners advance to Saturday’s 7 p.m. final.
The winner of that match gets an automatic bid to the six-team National Collegiate Championship tournament, which begins next weekend in Rec Hall with two play-in matches, before the semifinals and finals are there May 5-7.
At best, five matches remain, and the Nittany Lions don’t have to leave town.
Seifert can feel it, even if he still doesn’t believe it’s real, and refuses to until that first weekend of May.
“That’s when it will hit me,” Seifert said. “I’m kind of denying that it’s over until then.”
Seifert has always been a fairly prolific blocker. He averaged 0.67 blocks per set last season and 0.71 as a sophomore, and this year upped his defensive game to 0.94 blocks per set, just behind team-leader Callaway’s 1.01 per set.
But Seifert has been more involved in the offense too. Averaging just 1.0 kills per set, and .318 hitting, last season, he is now registering 1.53 kills per set this year on .440 hitting.
“It’s finally come around for me pretty well,” Seifert said.
The hitting average leads the team, and his offensive numbers have gone up the second half of the season.
Penn State has had a number of strong middle hitters in recent years, including Max Holt, who appears headed toward the Olympics, and Max Lipsitz, who went on to a couple seasons of professional ball overseas. It’s hard to imagine there aren’t pro opportunities as well for the 6-foot-9, broad-shouldered Seifert, if he wants them.
Getting more offensive production from the middle opens up the opportunities for the less-experienced pin hitters like Chris Nugent, Sauter, Aidan Albrecht, Jalen Penrose and Lee Smith, each of whom has gotten starting time on the outside this season.
Opening up the opposing defense is important for this team. It starts with good passing, and everyone is needed to find success. Unlike the last few seasons, with the dependable put-away power of Aaron Russell, who figures to also be on the U.S. Olympic team, these Lions do not have the one, reliable go-to person in the clutch.
It’s an offense by committee, and when things aren’t working just right, it breaks down. Rallies grow longer and wins don’t come easy.
That is how the Nittany Lions lost two matches in the EIVA this season — the first time that has happened since 1992, before anyone on the team was born. Both St. Francis and George Mason earned wins this season — the first time ever for the Red Flash, who hope for a repeat performance Thursday. Against the Patriots last Saturday, Penn State led 24-22 in the fourth set, needing just one point to extend it to a fifth, but lost the set 29-27 and the match 3-1.
“My frustration doesn’t score us any points,” Pavlik said. “We have to keep coming in here like we’ve been doing for the past 6-8 weeks. Keep hammering home, this is the urgency, what we have to make sure what we’re doing. It’s not bad volleyball that’s killing us, but it’s OK volleyball when we need good volleyball.”
Penn State last hosted the national championship in 2011, when Seifert was a senior at Exeter High School in Reading. He made the trip to State College to watch the matches, and see some former competitors be a part of that Nittany Lion team. He is appreciating how life has come around again to that same scenario.
“I’m going to get to play my last match with my team, in front of my family and my friends in my home gym,” Seifert said. “Not many guys get to say that. Not many Penn State teams can say they played a final four in their own gym.”
Showing their vulnerability over the last few weeks, they have to overcome their troubles and must win the matches this weekend to get to the NCAA’s event.
Seifert is making sure his teammates know they all have to do their part to make that happen.
“I don’t think it’s pressure at all, and that’s what I’ve been telling the guys,” Seifert said. “I don’t want them to see it as pressure, but to see it as a really good opportunity.”
What: EIVA Championships
Who: No. 2 seed George Mason (16-11) vs. No 3 Harvard (13-10), 5 p.m.; No. 4 St. Francis (18-9) at No. 1 Penn State (19-9), 7:30 p.m.
Where: Rec Hall
When: Semifinals Thursday, winners in championship match, 7 p.m. Saturday