It’s finally here — one last chance for the men’s volleyball team to prove itself against the juggernauts of the Wild Wild West.
This time, Penn State needs positive results more than ever.
The No. 7 Nittany Lions (20-3, 13-0 in EIVA) are heading to Utah for a critical two-match showdown against No. 4 BYU (21-6, 17-5 in MPSF), with the matches taking place tonight and tomorrow at 9 p.m. Penn State is looking to improve upon its 0-2 West Coast trip in March and thus boost both its resúmé and confidence.
Penn State came up short against No. 6 Pepperdine in five sets and No. 1 USC in three last month.
Penn State’s players said these matches versus BYU are critical because it is the last time they’ll be competing against teams from the MPSF until potentially facing them in the Final Four in May.
Senior Tor Covello said stealing even one match from the Cougars would go a long way for the team.
“This is more of a gauge of how we are against West Coast teams, since they’re so dominant out there with regard to competition,” Covello said. “So if we could take a match from BYU, it would definitely be huge.”
Although he doesn’t feel it’s completely necessary for the team to make a Final Four run, sophomore Peter Russell said taking down BYU would give the team an immense confidence boost.
“Just showing the other schools out there, you know, we can play with you guys, we can beat you guys,” Russell said. “It’s gonna show us where we are in terms of the rest of the country.”
This matchup also offers Penn State an opportunity to bolster its resúmé, considering the team has just two wins versus teams currently in the top 10.
After the conference tournaments, a selection committee ranks the three tournament winners and the at-large bid of its choice based on their production throughout the season.
Fifth-year senior Joe Sunder has been around long enough to know how important a difference in seeding can make in the Final Four.
“If we’re planning on being in the Final Four, these matches just help determine what our seed’s gonna be,” Sunder said. “It’s the difference of playing Ohio State and a big West Coast team, which is pretty huge. So I think everyone is fired up for this weekend.”
Similar to most West Coast powerhouses, BYU offers an aggressive style of play, especially at the net. The Cougars have eight players averaging over .75 blocks per set, compared to the Lions who have just one such player.
Head coach Mark Pavlik said his team is preparing to face two of the best middle hitters in the country in Futi Tavana and Russell Lavaja, who average 1.57 and 1.43 blocks per set respectively — both top 10 in the country in this category.
Freshman middle hitter Aaron Russell said he is looking forward to facing off with BYU’s towering middles, both over 6-foot-7.
“We’ll have to definitely match their physicality, middle is a very physical position so it’s definitely gonna be a showdown with the middles,” Russell said.
Furthermore, BYU possesses the greatest young star in the game, according to Pavlik, in sophomore Taylor Sander who averages a ridiculous 4.84 kills per set — second best in the country.
From a physical style of play to a great coaching staff and fan base, Pavlik said the BYU volleyball program is exemplary in virtually every aspect, which makes the Cougars such a difficult team to beat.
Although splitting the two-match series would probably suffice in terms of bolstering the team’s confidence and resúmé, Pavlik said he’s hoping for more than just a .500 weekend.
“Would I like to come back 2-0? Absolutely, that’s what we’re going out there for. We’re not going out there to make a statement to say, ‘Well, we’re just good enough,’ ” Pavlik said.
“I think we gotta play hard. We play hard and we play the best volleyball we play, and we force them to play good volleyball, we’re gonna get better because of that.”