It was Saturday night at Rec Hall in late April, and the Penn State men’s volleyball team usually has a standing date.
The Nittany Lions were a no-show this time.
Well, a few guys were there, but not in uniform.
Penn State hosted the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association tournament this weekend but the team was ousted by St. Francis on Thursday in the semifinals. It marks the first time since 1998 the Nittany Lions didn’t land the conference title.
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Instead, George Mason grabbed it and will be looking for the national title in Rec Hall the first week of May.
Given the way the Nittany Lions (19-10) played this season, especially over the final two months, maybe Thursday’s result wasn’t as much of a surprise.
The team struggled to find consistency, struggled with its passing, struggled to find a lineup and seemed to lack some of the hallmarks of the successful teams of the past. Among other items, while there was some physical prowess on the court, the team didn’t always have that go-to, terminal player. Last year they had Aaron Russell, an incredible talent who appears destined for the Olympics this summer. When Penn State absolutely, positively needed a point, even though everyone in the building knew the ball would be sent Russell’s way, he still managed to put the ball down for the kill.
Some days the team had power and got the points, but sometimes swings sailed so long fans in the first few rows had to worry about getting nailed on the fly.
The lack of a go-to guy at clutch time was manifested with the inability to close out sets and matches. Many a set point slipped away and a win turned into a loss.
“This is probably the year I’ll remember as the year of the lost side-out,” coach Mark Pavlik said Thursday.
Because there was not much security, it meant the killer instinct was not always present, and it chipped away at their confidence.
“I don’t know, maybe we just kind of started doubting ourselves,” senior Matt Seifert said. “That (18th) straight EIVA championship is right over the top of your head. Some of the guys are younger and they really don’t understand it.”
So Saturday night, and in another week-plus, other teams get to take over Rec Hall, and the Lions can only get in with tickets.
“It hurts, but it also should serve as a motivator,” Pavlik said. “That’s the thing that’s going to be interesting. It’s going to give me something that I’ve not had for 18 years to start the 2017 season with.”
Some Nittany Lions were on hand for the match Saturday night regardless. Royce Clemens and Chris Nugent sat together in one end of the arena, while Seifert was at the other end. Only Nugent was still around when the match ended — because he was named to the All-Tournament Team.
As both Pavlik and his players mentioned Thursday, the team will take the disappointment and make sure the program benefits for 2017.
“There’s not a single person in that locker room that enjoyed that feeling,” Nugent said. “We know we have to work everything we have into every single practice, every single day next year, and just hope we can model these seniors.”
George Mason wins
While it had been so long since any other team had won the conference title, it’s been even longer for the Patriots, who prevailed over St. Francis 25-14, 17-25, 25-18, 25-19 behind 22 kills and .417 hitting from Jack Wilson. It’s the program’s first conference title since 1988.
“It’s amazing,” Wilson said. “This is something I dreamed about since I started playing volleyball, I wanted to come and win an EIVA championship.”
Johnny Gomez added 20 digs and Brian Negron gave out 38 assists, directing the team to .314 hitting.
The Red Flash, held to .222 hitting, were looking for their first title ever. Jeff Hogan’s 16 kills, Stephen Braswell’s 11 kills and Daniel Ford’s 44 assists and 10 digs led the way. After stunning Penn State 48 hours earlier, they had to regroup.
“We knew we had a shot at making history,” Braswell said. “Mason came to play tonight and congratulations to them. We were prepared, we knew that Jack Wilson was a definite threat … it was a good season.”
It was a sweet experience for Jay Hosack, the EIVA Coach of the Year who took over the program late last summer after serving as a Nittany Lion assistant coach.
“I knew that the guys on the team were pretty good – we faced them in the finals last year when I was at Penn State and they were a tough team,” Hosack said. “… I certainly as a head coach always envision those kind of things, but you always, with some caution, kind of say, ‘Hey, let’s keep everything in check and make sure we do everything right.’ It’s quite an accomplishment in the first year.”
Most of the field set
The National Championship field became a lot more in focus Saturday night with the four conferences that field men’s volleyball holding championship matches.
The field of six teams will be announced at noon Sunday. The play-in matches for the lowest-seeded four teams will be May 3 at a site to be determined, with the semifinals on May 5 and the finals May 7 at Rec Hall. The top two seeds get byes into the semifinals.
Along with George Mason, Erskine of the Conference Carolinas and Ohio State of the MIVA are in. The No. 1 Buckeyes barely survived a five-set match with Lewis on Saturday.
Later Saturday, Brigham Young beat UCLA for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title. Both figure to make the field, one with the automatic bid, the other with an at-large berth. Both had very strong resumes.
Stanford and Long Beach State appeared to be the front-runners for the final spot.
Hall of Fame night
The EIVA honored its newest class into its Hall of Fame during the match, the fourth year of inductions.
Inducted were Bill Madara, an EIVA official for three decades, St. Francis standout Jordan Varee, who graduated in 2010, and George Mason’s Moyo Kasim, who helped the Patriots to the program’s first NCAA appearance in 1984.
St. Francis Director of Athletics Bob Krimmel was honored after the match and received a loud ovation. Krimmel, who is retiring this year, was formerly an assistant athletic director at Penn State. Former Lady Lion standout and assistant coach Susan Robinson Fruchtl is taking over the Red Flash athletic program.