Penn State Volleyball

Penn State men’s volleyball clinches share of conference title with win over Harvard

Penn State's Jalen Penrose hits the ball over Harvard defenders during the Friday, April 8, 2016 match in Rec Hall. Penn State won 3-0.
Penn State's Jalen Penrose hits the ball over Harvard defenders during the Friday, April 8, 2016 match in Rec Hall. Penn State won 3-0.

The Penn State men’s volleyball team still owns the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association.

For 18 straight seasons, the Nittany Lions sit atop the conference.

No. 11 Penn State finally put away Harvard 25-23, 25-18, 25-17 Friday night at Rec Hall, clinching at least a share of the regular-season EIVA title.

The Crimson (11-9, 7-4) dropped into a tie for second place along with George Mason and St. Francis. Mathematically, the Patriots can still catch the Nittany Lions (17-8, 10-1) for the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.

A Nittany Lion win in any of the final three matches clinches the EIVA title outright.

“We still have one more win that we’ve got to get,” coach Mark Pavlik said. “… I feel pretty good that we’re going to win one out of our next three. Yeah, I like where we’re at right now.”

Penn State closes the home schedule for the regular season at 7 p.m. Saturday, with Sacred Heart visiting on Senior Night. Two road games, including one at George Mason, follow to close the regular season.

Chris Nugent’s 10 kills and eight digs, Matt Seifert’s nine kills and five blocks, Royce Clemens’ 12 digs and Taylor Hammond’s 34 assists paced the Nittany Lions (17-8, 10-1). Seifert also hit .438 and Penn State hit .256 as a team, with a 7-5 blocking advantage.

The Crimson (11-9, 7-4) hit .152, paced by six kills each for Brad Gretsch, Riley Moore and Branden Clemens. Trevor Dow added four blocks.

Penn State got a boost from a mid-match switch to Jalen Penrose, after Aidan Albrecht struggled early.

“We needed somebody terminal,” Pavlik said. “We were creating opportunities, we just weren’t putting balls away. The one thing we’ve always said, Jalen will be terminal.”

Penrose finished with six kills and two blocks in just over a set-and-a-half of action.

He found hitting success almost immediately, hitting on the right side, and his athleticism and power spread out the Crimson defense, opening more hitting seams for the rest of the lineup.

“That really spreads out the offense,” Nugent said. “Not just for the left-sides, but for the middles too. They have to not over-commit to any one player, so that’s really nice. It alleviates the pressure for everybody else.”

The Nittany Lions also put the Crimson on their heels with a strong service game in the latter half of the match. The team had 15 errors from behind the line, but a lot of the early mistakes were mechanical in the serves, while the second half of the match saw much more consistency.

“When we’re serving well, and just missing, I’m OK with that,” Pavlik said. “But when we’re consistently not making good contact and trying to force it, it can be ugly, it can be frustrating at times.”

It led to seven aces, with two each for Lee Smith, Andrew Roberts and Nugent.

“Late Game 2, through Game 3, I like the way we were making contact with our serves,” Pavlik said. “We had Harvard knocked off the net, and defensively they played right into what we thought they’d be doing.”

That serve brought a lot of frustration to Harvard.

“Our serve-receive – we struggled,” Crimson coach Brian Baise said. “There was no connection between our hitters and our setter. I don’t think we got a single transition point off a dig or off a block on our side.”

The teams were toe-to-toe all the way through the first set, and stood at 15-15 in the second, just a few points after Penrose came into the match, when it was finally time for the Nittany Lions to make a big run, closing with 10 of the final 13 points. Two Roberts aces were part of the burst.

Penn State then jumped to a 7-1 lead to start the third set and never trailed to leave the Crimson out of reach.

“We would be great on defense, get some ups,” Harvard’s Gretsch said. “… But we wouldn’t get a kill in transition.”

Notes: Harvard has never beaten Penn State in Rec Hall. … The Nittany Lions held a 37-27 advantage in kills and 34-27 in digs. … The No. 1 seed will host the EIVA semifinals and finals April 21-23. … Penn State hosts the national championship tournament May 5-7. … The Nittany Lions, after starting the season 12-2, are 5-6 since the beginning of March.

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT