There is a popular depiction of the cartoon character Snoopy in which the dog imitates a vulture. Snoopy would stand with his neck craned forward, back hunched and eyes drawn back in a somewhat evil-looking stare.
This was Alan Mars during his freshman year on the Penn State men’s volleyball team.
According to coach Mark Pavlik, it was easy to tell when Mars was upset with the way he was playing because he would get the same look on his face that Snoopy got when imitating a vulture.
Pavlik said Mars had a hard time keeping a level head when it came to his own performance in his first years as a Nittany Lion. But to watch the fifth-year senior play now, it would be hard to imagine him getting down on himself.
Gone is the head-hanging freshman learning the ropes of collegiate volleyball and in his place stands a senior leader hoping to guide a young team to its second national championship in four seasons.
“He’s the same guy now whether he’s playing well or struggling a little bit,” Pavlik said. “He’s understanding how his presence and how he conducts himself can really impact the team. Especially a team as young as we have.”
Mars will play his final regular season home match this Sunday when the No. 10 Lions host No. 9 Ohio State at Rec Hall.
The match has high implications, as it will present the Lions with a chance to avenge a 3-0 sweep to the Buckeyes on Feb. 9 in Columbus. It could also play a factor in the seeding for the NCAA national semifinals should both teams win their respective conference tournaments.
But for Mars and fellow senior Dennis Del Valle, the match also brings the opportunity for both to be honored for their service to the program.
With just two seniors on a roster that includes 10 total freshmen and sophomores, Mars and Del Valle’s leadership has been needed more than ever this season. Mars admitted he felt an increased need to step up this season and help his younger teammates along, but it’s a role he did not shy away from.
“I was ready to take that on,” Mars said. “Me and [Pavlik] talked a lot over the summer and we were ready for it. I wanted that responsibility.”
Mars hasn’t always been in the starting lineup this season, of 25 matches he’s played in 18 and started just 12 times. It would be easy for his teammates who have seen more time to let what the senior says fall on deaf ears. But when Mars speaks, his teammates know it’s important.
Pavlik said in the past he’s had captains who would speak up just to hear their own voice, but Mars doesn’t mince words. When Mars speaks, his teammates listen because they know he’s been through almost everything there is to go through in college volleyball.
When the Lions lost to Ohio State on Feb. 9, Mars was the first to remind the Lions after the match that he couldn’t remember the last time the Buckeyes beat the Lions. Mars didn’t play in that match, but his remarks after it are being used as motivation for the upcoming match this weekend.
That’s the impact that Mars has had on the Lions. He knows exactly what to say and when to say it.
“I’ve been impressed by sometimes he’s in and sometimes he’s not, but his role never changes,” redshirt junior setter Edgardo Goas said. “No one has second guessed him.”
The respect that Mars has garnered from his teammates stems from his incessant desire to get better. The Rochester, N.Y., native has made great strides from the freshman that beat himself to the senior that knows his limits, but still tries to improve his game every day.
When Ian Hendries, the Lions’ leading blocker, went down with an ankle sprain two weeks ago, it was Mars’ duty to step in and fill the void in the middle. That following Monday, Mars was in the volleyball office watching film and finding ways to improve and help the Lions the following weekend.
After five years of playing college volleyball, Mars still wants to get better. And when that five years comes to an end, Mars hopes to find a way to help other players get better.
“I would love to coach,” Mars said. “Unfortunately, volleyball is one of those sports that when you start out, it’s not very lucrative. But my ideal situation is if I get a job, I’d love to start coaching high school.”
Mars’ teammates have no doubt that he could be a great coach if he elects to take that road. Even now, Mars is showing the ability needed to be a motivator and the high volleyball IQ needed to excel in the coaching realm. As Hendries pointed out, Mars often notices things that nobody else on the court does and is especially helpful with the Lions’ young middles.
The impact that Mars has had on this year’s team isn’t something that necessarily will show its full effect this year. The Lions have benefited from Mars’ presence already, but the mindset that Mars has instilled on this team is something that has Pavlik excited for what the future holds.
“Alan’s contributions to this program are really going to be felt two, three years down the road when this crop of freshmen and sophomores are leading the next generation,” Pavlik said.
“They’re gonna take what Alan has taught them about leadership and, if they do that, this team is gonna be in pretty good hands over the next four years.”