The Penn State men’s volleyball team had already won the first two sets, and held a decent margin in the third, when Princeton put on a run and made the match interesting.
Then, Nick Goodell took a couple big swings and Aaron Russell had perhaps the kill of the night Thursday at Rec Hall.
The No. 14 Nittany Lions finally stopped the pesky Tigers 25-20, 25-17, 25-23 in the EIVA semifinals behind 21 kills, 12 digs and four aces for Russell and 14 kills for Goodell.
“In this match I think we wanted to stay pretty physical,” Nittany Lion coach Mark Pavlik said. “I think we did.”
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The win puts Penn State in the conference finals at 7 p.m. Saturday against Harvard, a five-set winner over George Mason in the night’s first contest. The winner of that match heads to the National Collegiate Championship semifinals on May 2 at UCLA.
Taylor Hammond gave out 39 assists and Connor Curry collected 11 digs as the Nittany Lions (22-7) hit .398 and held a 7-0 advantage in aces.
Pat Schwagler had a big game for the Tigers (13-10), converting 10 kills on 20 error-free swings to hit .500. He also had seven digs. Devin Stearns added eight kills, Davis Waddell had 28 assists and Tony Ensbury also had seven digs.
“We’re a little bummed right now,” Princeton coach Sam Shweisky said. “But Penn State played outstanding, and we played pretty well too. In the end they just made a few more plays.”
While Penn State was not in firm control, the match was essentially in the Nittany Lions’ hands at 16-11.
But Princeton began to rally, running off three straight kills from Schwagler and then adding a triple block on Peter Russell to take a 19-17 lead.
But Peter Russell answered with a kill down the line to end the run, and after a run of sets to Russell’s side of the court, Hammond sent two straight feeds to Goodell for some big put-aways.
“We made some digs and Nick took some great swings,” Pavlik said. “All of a sudden they’re thinking, ‘Oh, it’s ‘Aaron Time.’ Not any more. We can come at you from both antennas in any given rotation.”
Goodell had four kills among Penn State’s final seven points, and seven kills in the frame, and demonstrated plenty of emotion to punctuate the points.
“I just felt great,” Goodell said. “I love whenever they start keying on Aaron or keying up on our other guys because they’re doing so well. That just releases me.”
That set the stage for the final two points off the right hand of Aaron Russell, who had a clear opening to rocket a kill down the line and off the face of a Tiger defender, as the ball bounced toward the Princeton bench and the Rec Hall crowd gave out a collective “Ooooo!”
“After that happened I was feeling really excited and everything,” said Russell, who hit .704. “I kind of thought to myself when I was back at the service line, ‘What better way to finish off the match (than) with an ace.’ It happened which was pretty cool.”
Russell delivered and gave Penn State a shot at a 28th trip to the national championships.
Russell has broken out some of his best games against Princeton, posting a career-high 22 kills against the Tigers at Rec Hall in February, then notching 18 kills and three aces at Princeton last month.
“Tonight I can’t tell you what happened,” the EIVA Player of the Year said. “It’s always fun to play at a high level, and when guys around you are playing well, it’s great. You can’t ask for anything more.”
“Aaron Russell is outstanding,” Shweisky said. “He’s really good. Hats off to the coaching staff for moving him from middle to outside this year.”
Penn State and Harvard split their regular-season series. The Crimson were the only program to beat the Nittany Lions in conference play, winning 3-0 in Cambridge, Mass., and falling 3-2 in Rec Hall in February.
Harvard 3, George Mason 2
The Crimson will be appearing in their first conference title match after earning the first EIVA tournament win in program history.
Harvard constantly fought back — from down 2-1 in sets, down 11-6 in the fifth set and facing down three match points. The Crimson also could not convert on two match points of their own until finally cashing in with a Caleb Zimmick ace to clinch the 25-23, 26-28, 17-25, 25-22, 19-17 victory.
“As a coach I was hoping to just make a play or two, put a little pressure on them see if they crack a little bit,” Harvard coach Brian Baise said. “Both teams were tired.”
Nick Madden’s 16 kills and 10 digs, DJ White’s 15 kills, Zimmick’s 13 kills and seven blocks and Brandon Clemens’ 12 kills paced the Crimson (18-8). Chris Gibbons made 14 digs and Rob Lothman had 51 assists and 10 digs.
The Patriots (15-12) were led by Michael Kvidahl’s 22 kills, Andrew Dentler’s 19 kills and 10 digs, Mark Jones’ 13 kills, Javier Perez’s 58 assists and Pat Sibley’s four aces.
“They were one step ahead of us the whole match even when we were winning the set,” said George Mason’s Max McFarland, who led everyone with 20 digs.