In recent seasons, the Penn State men’s volleyball team had not been a very physical blocking team.
The Nittany Lions were stuffing Anteaters on Monday night.
Penn State built a huge block and ended its four-match losing streak with its defense, knocking off California-Irvine in four sets at Rec Hall.
“We strung together a lot more good to great volleyball,” coach Mark Pavlik said after his No. 10 Nittany Lions shook off a poor start for a 23-25, 25-20, 25-16, 25-17 victory.
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It was the sixth straight match taken to at least four sets for Penn State (13-6).
“Now we’ve got to build on it,” said Spencer Sauter, who posted 10 kills on .600 hitting with four blocks. “Now we remember that winning feeling and how good it feels to win, and now we’ve got to be hungry to go out and just keep doing it.”
Aidan Albrecht’s 12 kills led the way, with six blocks for Matt Seifert, 10 digs for Royce Clemens and 35 assists and four blocks for Taylor Hammond.
Kyle Russell’s eight kills, Jason Agopian’s seven kills, Michael Saeta’s 27 assists and four aces and Dillon Hoffman’s 12 digs paced the No. 14 Anteaters (7-15).
The match is part of a stretch of 11 straight home matches, and the team is in the midst of facing six ranked teams in seven matches. The long homestand closes this weekend when the Nittany Lions host No. 14 Lewis and No. 12 Loyola on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
A big key to the win was a huge block for Penn State. The team had been averaging just 2.3 blocks per set, but dominated in the defensive effort with a 12.5-4 advantage in denials.
“Some pretty timely and big blocks at times helped us extend our leads in the games that we won,” Pavlik said. “I thought we were pretty physical at the net tonight.”
The Nittany Lions had been outblocked by opponents each of the previous five seasons, and entered Monday’s match with just 2.5 blocks more than opponents, averaging 2.3 per set.
“That started with the scouting report,” Sauter said of Monday’s blocking advantage.
Irvine rolled off eight of the final 10 points, rallying from four points down, to take the opening set. Karl Apfelbach had a pair of aces during the Anteater run.
Penn State responded with a 10-4 run in the middle of the second set, then closed with four of the final five points to even the match. The Lions cut down on the errors to take control.
By the midpoint of the second, Penn State also was beginning to track the Irvine serve better. Saeta had aces on three straight points, giving his team six to that point early in the set, but the team managed just one more ace the rest of the match while unloading 19 service errors.
“I think we kind of had a point where we were done playing the way we were playing,” Hammond said. “We were in that drought we just went, ‘We’re done with this. We need to change what we’re doing.’”
“Just not executing on something we need to execute,” Irvine’s Agopian said. “You miss serves, you don’t play good volleyball, it’s going to be real tough to win.”
Penn State never trailed in the third, strengthening its block and pouncing on a growing pile of Anteater errors. A Kevin Gear kill on an overpass closed the set.
It was more of the same in the fourth with a big Penn State blocking effort once again, with Seifert and Chris Nugent combining for the final stuff on Saeta to wrap up the match.
Notes: While Penn State was playing its third match in four days, all of them were at home. Irvine has a much tougher stretch. The Anteaters played a noon match in Muncie, Ind., losing in five sets Sunday. The bus broke down on the drive, getting the team into State College at 2:45 a.m. Monday. They play at George Mason on Tuesday, then fly straight to Hawaii for two league matches next weekend. … The Nittany Lions hit .327, and the Anteaters hit .154. Penn State also led in kills 49-40 and digs 36-28.