With the game on the line, setter Edgardo Goas didn't call for a seasoned vet to close out the match -- he called for a freshman.
Aaron Russell didn't have to be told twice.
Penn State's men's volleyball team held a 14-12 lead in the decisive fifth set against Princeton when Goas told Russell to expect the ball. Russell, who closed the deal with his 14th kill of the match last Friday, has embraced his new offensive role on the team as the team enters the final stretch of the season.
Many of the team's main contributors struggled offensively in the Princeton match, meaning the door was open for Russell to step up. Of players with more than 10 attacks, Russell was the only player to hit for a hitting percentage higher than .300.
The freshman middle hitter hit 14 kills on 18 attempts for a steaming hitting percentage of .722.
Russell said Goas made it very clear during a timeout before match point who was going to get the ball.
"Eddy came up to me and was like, 'Alright, I'm gonna [feed you] on this set,' " Russell said. " 'Be up early and I'll get it to you, and then we can finish this.' "
Assistant coach Jay Hosack instructed Goas to look for Russell more often after the middle hitters didn't see much action offensively early in the match.
Russell said his offensive responsibilities have expanded from that of the beginning of the year, when he was asked to be more of a decoy.
"Earlier on in the year, I didn't really have a role like that," Russell said. "It was mostly just like, 'Give the ball to Nick [Goodell] or Joe [Sunder] and then throw it into the middle a few times.' "
Russell also hit a team-high .647 with 12 kills in Penn State's 3-1 win against George Mason on Saturday. His outstanding offensive weekend, in which he hit .686, allowed him to take home his first EIVA offensive player of the week award of his career.
Russell has been making adjustments to his attacking style and redshirt freshman Nick Goodell said this has been paying dividends to his recent success.
"I think it's just his offensive perspective is like a lot better," Goodell said. "I think just from watching film and stuff he's been fixing his little errors.... So whatever he's doing [now] is working."
Perhaps most importantly, Russell has been extremely consistent throughout the year.
The freshman leads starters with a hitting percentage of .419 on the season, and he averages 7.35 kills per match.
"Aaron shows up everyday and he's [always] working his hardest," freshman Matt Seifert said. "I think he's kept a pretty consistent level of play all throughout the season and I think that's definitely been something that we can depend on him for. To block well, play well, stuff like that."
Head coach Mark Pavlik said he has been cautious with Russell's playing time recently, knowing that freshmen are not accustomed to the demand of a full college season. Russell attested this, saying he suffered from fatigue in the middle of the year.
However, Russell's recent play indicates he has caught his second wind and is primed for a postseason run.
"I've worked hard throughout the year to get everything right and now, I think it's all starting to come together," he said.