The opposing emotions were striking.
The St. Francis men’s volleyball team raced onto the court in ecstatic celebration, high-fiving a small but loud student section.
A few minutes later, Penn State’s Matt Seifert glowered toward the back of the interview room, and Chris Nugent, stared at his knees, both unable to come to grips with Thursday night’s events.
It was a stunning upset after 17 straight conference titles.
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St. Francis, which had never beaten the Nittany Lions until earlier this season, did it again at Rec Hall 27-29, 28-26, 25-22, 25-23 in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association semifinals.
“A lot of firsts are happening this year,” said Stephen Braswell, who had nine kills and whose brother is on the Nittany Lion bench. “I love it. It’s a great thing for this program, it’s a great thing for these guys.”
The Red Flash will meet George Mason at 7 p.m. Saturday at Rec Hall for a berth in the National Collegiate Championship Tournament, which also will be held at Rec Hall.
The last time Penn State had lost in the EIVA tournament was 1998, before any of the current Nittany Lions were in elementary school.
“When you pour your heart and soul into attaining excellence in anything you do,” coach Mark Pavlik said, “and the biggest matches, the biggest opportunities you don’t, it hurts.”
The Red Flash (19-9) got 22 kills from Jeff Hogan, 11 kills on .625 hitting and six blocks from Mike Marshman, three aces from Xavier Krause, 47 assists from Daniel Ford and 12 digs from Gabe Woffindin.
Nugent’s 20 kills and 12 digs paced the Nittany Lions (19-10), with a dozen kills from Aidan Albrecht, 10 kills from Seifert, 14 digs from Royce Clemens, five blocks for Matt Callaway, four aces for Jalen Penrose and 51 assists for Taylor Hammond.
“It’s not how we wanted to go out,” Seifert said after the final match of his career. “As much as I try to forget about it … this is how I’m always going to remember my last game, as a loss in the conference tournament.”
Penn State’s night was riddled with errors of all kinds, both physical and mental. The team hit .229 with 27 hitting errors and 43 total miscues.
St. Francis hit .275 with 21 hitting errors, won the block 10.5-8 and hit .448 in the final set.
After losing the first 37 meetings between the programs, the Red Flash had confidence thanks to a win in Rec Hall just over a month ago.
“Knowing (how to win) definitely helps a lot,” Braswell said. “Winning that game, since we knew we could do it, you could tell the guys were a lot more confident.”
The first set marathon had each team denied two set points. A ball that bounced off a Red Flash player landed barely out of bounds to secure the final point. The frame was highlighted by four straight aces from Penrose, but the team had just one more the rest of the night while the Red Flash had seven for the evening.
The second-set marathon saw Penn State rally from four points down early, then had the Red Flash fight off three set points at 24-21, and another set point later, before a Marshman ace locked it up.
St. Francis was showing plenty of confidence in the third, while Penn State was making errors and playing inconsistently, and it helped give the Red Flash the set. Penn State had 10 errors, including seven hitting miscues, in the frame.
The Nittany Lions were able to get control when points were decided early, but any point that was extended seemed to go the Red Flash’s way.
“That’s the way it’s been all year,” Pavlik said. “… It was really one of the biggest things we tried to address for the last two months of the year. We could never find the right combination to make it happen.”
A kill from Keith Kegerreis wrapped up the match in the fourth on a quick set, starting the ecstatic celebration with the small but loud student section.
“We love the ‘Rascals,’” Marshman said of the student section. “They come to all our games at home and I think it definitely, like, gave us an advantage and made us feel like we were at home in our own gym.”
One of the toughest questions for the Nittany Lions, is would they even make the trek across campus to see Saturday’s match, let alone the NCAA events the next two weekends.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to bear it,” Hammond said. “It really hasn’t set in for me. I’m kind of shaken.”
George Mason 3, Harvard 0
The Patriots made it to the finals with a 25-11, 25-21, 25-21 sweep of the Crimson.
Paco Velez and Christian Malias each posted 11 kills, Brian Negron had 35 assists, Valez also served up five aces and he, Negron and Garrett Kollar had three blocks each.
The Patriots hit .423 for the match with an 8-3 blocking advantage, and held the Crimson to .169 hitting.
Brandon Clemens’ nine kills led Harvard.