No pressure or anything guys, but there’s a lot to do in the next four months.
The Penn State men’s volleyball team just held its first practice of the year on Saturday, and Thursday and Friday the team opens its season hosting a pair of rather respectable programs: No. 12 Southern California and No. 5 UCLA. Both matches start at 7:30 p.m. in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge.
“Then it starts — then it’s May,” coach Mark Pavlik said of a season that will fly to the finish line back in Rec Hall, where the Nittany Lions host the national championships.
Penn State will not be guaranteed a spot in the tournament, even if the program has been there each season since 1998 by winning its conference.
But the No. 10 Nittany Lions will have to do so after some major losses from their lineup. Gone are libero Connor Curry, a four-year starter, and the team’s top two hitters, Nick Goodell and Aaron Russell. Russell was merely one of the nation’s top players, who played all summer, starting a lot of the time, with the U.S. national team, and figures to be on this summer’s Olympic team.
“We’re probably looking to get more answers,” Pavlik said. “There were a bunch of first- and third-contacts that we have to figure out. We have to make up for them.”
How do you replace nearly 5 kills per set, a go-to guy who could put the ball away even when everyone in the building knew where the ball was going to be set? It’s a problem Pavlik faced a few years ago when a couple other players, who are now teammates with Russell on Team USA, left the Nittany Lion program.
“You hope that the experience of the guys behind him have gained in the past one or two years, they can come in and make those things happen,” Pavlik said. “Aaron Russell, like Matt Anderson and Max Holt, was maybe a once-a-decade-type of guy.”
Leading the way in taking Russell’s spot is Chris Nugent, who started most of the season, and was third in the team in kills. The other outside hitter spot figures to be either Spencer Sauter, who started a handful of games last season, or redshirt freshman Lee Smith. Jalen Penrose, who saw a lot of action but was inconsistent last season, takes over for Goodell at opposite.
While those three spots get the wrinkles ironed out, Penn State will look for some reliability in the middle with returning starters Matt Seifert and Matt Callaway, the team’s top two blockers last season. Joining them is redshirt freshman Kevin Gear. All three are 6-foot-7.
“We’re hoping that’s going to take a little bit of the pressure off the pins (hitters),” Pavlik said of the experience in the middle. “All three guys, Seif and Callaway especially, have been through the wars.”
Under pressure of a different sort is the setter position. The incumbent is three-year starter Taylor Hammond, and while it’s not normal for someone starting that long to have his job in danger, Pavlik thinks fellow senior Zack Parik has the chance to take it away.
“His release is tough to read,” Pavlik said of Parik. “That’s been a benefit for us. I keep going to the old (football adage), ‘If you have two quarterbacks, does that mean you don’t have one?’ … I like both of them, and (a competition) is something we haven’t had here in a while.”
The coach, heading into his 22nd season at the helm, would prefer to give the keys to the offense to just one of them, just for consistency, but hasn’t settled on a decision.
“With one setter, he knows if he’s not good, we’re not good,” Pavlik said. “But Zack has kind of forced my hand.”
With one setter, he knows if he’s not good, we’re not good.
Mark Pavlik, men’s volleyball coach
The season is challenging, with nine of the nation’s top 15 teams all coming to State College, since they all want a look at where they want to be playing in May. It means 18 of the season’s 28 matches are in Rec Hall.
But the final matches in the building won’t have the Nittany Lions unless the new lineup falls into place and everyone plays their role.
“It’s not anything we haven’t had before,” Pavlik said. “Let the team know right up front, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on. Don’t make it any different than any other year has been.’”
Penn State men’s volleyball
Head coach: Mark Pavlik (22nd season)
Last year: 21-10
Starters return/lost: 4/3
Season opens: Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge, Thursday—No. 5 UCLA vs. No. 6 Ohio State, 5 p.m.; No. 12 Southern California at No. 10 Penn State, 7:30 p.m.; Friday—Ohio State vs. USC, 5 p.m.; UCLA at Penn State, 7:30 p.m.