It was an offseason unlike any the Penn State men’s volleyball program had experienced in nearly two decades.
Last season, despite hosting the National Championships, the Nittany Lions were not part of the tournament, were not league champions and not part of the discussion of the nation’s best teams.
Instead, team members could only watch glumly from the Rec Hall bleachers.
Did it inspire those returning this season?
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“I would hope,” coach Mark Pavlik said. “Any time your goal is to be the champion … and you fall short, I hope the guys took it upon themselves.”
It was a time for internal observation for team members, and also an acknowledgment that others in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association had caught up to them. For the first time since 1998, they were not top dogs. The playing field had been leveled so much, in his preseason ballot Pavlik picked his own program to finish third in the EIVA, behind George Mason, last year’s champ, and St. Francis, which beat Penn State twice.
“It bodes well for the league,” Pavlik said. “The bar has been raised, and can our guys answer it? Can we make sure we’re in the best position possible in April?”
The No. 13 Nittany Lions begin their climb back toward the top at 5 p.m. Friday in the AVCA Showcase at Ohio State, facing No. 2 UCLA before battling Southern California at 3 p.m. Saturday. The host No. 1 Buckeyes are the defending national champions.
Thanks to graduation there are a number of lineup changes for Penn State, the biggest of which is redshirt freshman Luke Braswell taking over quarterbacking duties at setter. The Northeastern product is bigger and more physical at the net than his predecessor, Taylor Hammond, and Pavlik likes what drives Braswell.
“Luke wants to win at everything,” Pavlik said. “I think that’s a great trait to have in a young setter.”
The most experienced hitters are seniors Chris Nugent on the outside and Matt Callaway in the middle. Nugent was by far the most important offensive producer last season, ranking 12th in the nation with 3.84 kills per set, while Callaway is the top returning blocker, totaling 76 stuffs last year.
The other left-side hitter is figured to be Lee Smith, but he was sidelined with an injury earlier in the week and will miss the matches in Columbus.
Another position battle figures to be on the right side between returning starter Jalen Penrose and Cal Mende. Penrose can be one of the most exciting players to watch, but consistency has been a major issue, with his spikes just as likely to hit the 10-foot line as the 10th row of the bleachers.
The other sure spot in the lineup is libero Royce Clemens and his reliable passing.
No matter what, Pavlik is going to try to get his best lineup on the floor, even if it means some unconventional looks at times. But he also knows, even if they didn’t end up as the league tournament champions last spring, the Nittany Lions are still the standard and the target everyone wants to beat this year.
And while he expects his team members to be driven by last season’s shortcomings, he and his staff have not been bringing it up during preparations for the season.
“We didn’t do that when we won,” Pavlik said. “We’re not going to change the way we do things just because of one outcome.”