In the long run, conference play gives teams a chance to reach the annual NCAA tournament in May.
However, Penn State men’s volleyball coach Mark Pavlik said January volleyball rarely holds matches of real importance. But this year, he said the beginning of the conference schedule is as important as ever.
A dominating sweep of Sacred Heart on Friday was as good a start as the Nittany Lions could have hoped for. They followed up with a five-set victory over Harvard on Saturday.
“This is the first time that I can remember that we have meaningful EIVA matches in January,” Pavlik said. “These were huge ones for us to get.”
Freshman setter Taylor Hammond orchestrated the offensive machine that subdued the Pioneers, offering up 31 assists and aiding a team hitting percentage of .313.
“I feel really comfortable,” Hammond said. “With the hitters that I have, it makes it really easy for me. I’m going to put [the credit] right back on them.”
But immediately after the blowout win, Nick Turko said he was shifting his focus to Harvard, when Penn State would ultimately run into its first conference obstacle.
The Crimson entered the match undefeated, but expected a quintessential EIVA match during its visit to University Park.
“I anticipate that it’s going to be the most balanced and toughest conference in my five years,” Harvard coach Brian Baise said. “I expect tonight to be characteristic of a lot of EIVA matches this year, pretty close and hard-fought.”
The first game was indicative of how the match would play out, as Penn State sneaked out with a 25-23 win. At that point, the struggle for supremacy was only beginning.
Penn State and Harvard swapped games through four, before Penn State ran away with the deciding fifth game, 15-6.
“He who streaked last won,” Pavlik said. “We just put together a pretty good 15-point streak [in the fifth game].”
Both teams hovered around hitting .000, with typical standouts Tom Comfort and Aaron Russell both hitting zero and negative, respectively.
With the team in need of a boost, it turned to its bench experience for help.
Senior Kyle Mars contributed seven kills and a much-needed revitalization, while fellow senior Ian Hendries added a team-leading .600 hitting percentage. Both were involved in four blocks as well.
But with their stars coming up short on Saturday, Pavlik said the players will be eager to get back in the gym and work toward getting back on track for next weekend.
“I guarantee on Monday when they come into practice, they’ll be ready to go,” Pavlik said.