It was a bitter end to an exciting season.
The fourth-seeded Nittany Lions were defeated in four sets by the top-seed UC-Irvine Anteaters 3-1 () in the NCAA Semifinals in Los Angeles. The loss eliminates the Lions from the tournament and ends a season in which the Lions won the EIVA conference for the 28th time.
The Penn State offense was running on all cylinders right out of the gate; it hit .357 in set one led by redshirt freshman Nick Goodell with five kills. UC-Irvine could not get production out of their top-ranked offense and were held to a .100 hitting percentage. The Lions cruised in the set 25-18.
Roles were reversed in set two, as UC-Irvine was able to return to its top hitting form, opening the set with a 6-2 run and never looking back behind the leadership of senior Carson Clark and sophomore Connor Hughes, who posted with three and five kills, respectively. Clark also contributed two aces
UC-Irvine carried this momentum into set three and rolled. The Anteaters were able to forge several runs, including two 4-0 runs at 10-7 and then at 17-10 to demoralize the Penn State offense. The Lions were forced into making mistakes on their side of the net behind good serving by UC-Irvine; the Lions had five attack errors in the set.
With their backs to the wall, the Lions came out in set four playing like the desperate team. They built an early lead and forced UC-Irvine to call two timeouts at 9-5. It looked as though the Lions had enough to tie the match. Things changed after a kill by Irvine’s Hughes at 16-14, however, the Anteaters were able to fight their way to an 18-18 tie and end the set on a 7-1 run to take it all 25-19.
“I’d like to congratulate UC-Irvine, especially on their resiliency,” said head coach Mark Pavlik. “I thought Irvine did a great job of handling our serves through the course of the match. We told the guys we thought the winner of this match would be the team that served and passed the best and I think that held true.
Top performers for the Lions included redshirt senior Joe Sunder with 15 kills and eight digs, as well as Goodell who had 15 kills and two aces. Even with their kills Penn State’s two top hitters struggled hitting .205 and .237 percentages, far below their season averages. Freshman Aaron Russell had arguably the most productive performance for the Lions with 10 kills on .474 hitting and redshirt senior setter Edgardo Goas contributed 41 assists and six digs. The match was the last in decorated seniors Goas and Sunder’s careers.
UC-Irvine will go on to play the winner of the Lewis-USC match in Saturday’s NCAA Championship in Los Angeles.