Trophies and banners are seemingly fool’s gold.
The rafters of Rec Hall remind spectators of the men’s volleyball team’s dominance, and coach Mark Pavlik’s office is nearly overflowing with trophies and accolades, but these shining examples of excellence are not synonymous with the team’s place within the building it plays in.
It is apparent that, above all else, Rec Hall is the women’s volleyball team’s home.
When fans descend the staircase inside the student entrance of the building, they are greeted by a section of the Penn State Volleyball Hall of Honor, which displays photos of All-Americans and conference champions. The photos there are all from women’s teams.
Then, approaching the court area for a women’s match, fans are embraced by a loud atmosphere that is above and beyond the feel of a men’s match.
Statistically, the disparity in the support the crowd gives the teams is considerable. The women’s team averaged more than 3,000 in match attendance in 2012, while to this point in the men’s season, the Nittany Lions have only averaged 877 fans, much of that being influenced only by the past two matches.
For the women, the sublime home atmosphere offers a clear competitive advantage — an advantage that the men do not receive in the same way.
“When we score a huge point, we want to see the crowd react,” women’s setter Micha Hancock said. “It’s hard for [the men] because they have fewer fans. We have the band and all the fans, so it’s going to be loud no matter what.”
Pavlik said he wishes his team had the same support, but in a building that has hosted men’s national championship tournaments, he knows how influential the fans can be.
“The event experience for women’s volleyball is great,” Pavlik said. “If we could find a way to maximize attendance and bring people into State College this time of year, that would be great too, but the people that are here are knowledgeable and can get loud.”
Aside from the highs that the women’s volleyball team regularly rides on its home court, the male tenants are also missing out on conference play that is nothing short of fierce.
Banners displaying the membership of the Big Ten hang from the ceiling of the main gym at Rec Hall, and seven of those schools cracked the final top 25 of 2012 in women’s volleyball.
But none of those schools, save for Ohio State, will be visiting the building to face the men’s team. They don’t even have a men’s volleyball team.
With the absence of the Big Ten in men’s volleyball, Penn State is allocated to the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, a volleyball-only conference in which the Nittany Lions are the only ranked team.
The conference is without the name-brand competition that Penn State fans are used to witnessing in other sports. Less prominent schools such as NJIT, Rutgers-Newark and George Mason visit the building for conference matches, and fans may fail to see their intrigue.
Furthermore, Penn State faces fewer challenging opponents during the regular season, which could impede the Lions’ journey to national supremacy.
Hancock sees the competitive conference in women’s volleyball as a measuring stick for end-of-year goals — something that has not benefited the men’s team in the past.
“It’s definitely an issue,” men’s middle hitter Aaron Russell said. “We don’t experience the competition that the women’s team does or that the [Mountain Pacific Sports Federation] in men’s volleyball does, but the EIVA is getting stronger so we still see some threats. But it’s definitely not like the schools the women’s team plays.”
As often as Penn State breezes through the EIVA, which it has done every year since 1999, the team has usually comes up short in the NCAA tournament. Of all their postseason appearances since 1999, the Lions have only finished the season once as the champion..
Russell said this haunts the Lions when it comes to their low attendance.
“We always want to fill up Rec Hall,” Russell said. “It would be nice, but we know we have to perform well on the big stage in order to do that.”
Even though Penn State led the EIVA in attendance last season, those numbers have generally fallen in 2013. Still, the team experienced a spike in attendance last weekend when they faced a local conference opponent in St. Francis and rival Ohio State.
“The louder the gym, the better off you are,” Pavlik said.