With its season more than one-third complete, the Penn State men’s volleyball team is sitting pretty with a No. 5 ranking and 8-1 overall record. The Nittany Lions have defeated four top-15 opponents all away from home and have received contributions from nearly every member of the team.
Let’s look at why the Lions have been so successful this season and some areas they can improve upon.
This team is one of the deepest in Mark Pavlik’s 18-year tenure as head coach and it shows every week, as a different player every match seems to lead the team in kills. To be exact, the team has had five different players lead the team in kills in a match this season.
The Lions have 17 players on the roster and with the exception of freshman Matt Seifert and Taylor Hammond, who are redshirting, Pavlik feels that each player can make an impact if called upon. Several key players, including outsider hitter Jace Olsen and opposite Tom Comfort, have seen playing time decrease simply because guys like Peter Russell and Nick Goodell emerged off the bench and outplayed them. For what it’s worth, the Lions haven’t lost since Russell and Goodell have been in the starting lineup.
The depth is also beneficial because it allows fifth-year seniors Joe Sunder and Edgardo Goas to have more rest in anticipation of a deep postseason run.
Penn State has done a good job forcing its opponents to earn its points. After winning despite 87 attacking errors through the first five games of the season, the Lions have tallied just 30 in the past four games. The Lions also are hitting the ball consistently. They rank seventh in the country with a hitting percentage of .345 and they rank sixth in the country with a kills per set of 13.46. When a team as loaded as Penn State hits the ball efficiently and doesn’t make mistakes, opposing teams need to play a perfect game to have a chance at beating them.
The Lions haven’t been tested in too many matches this season, but when they have been, they’ve been able to dig deep and earn the crucial points to win a set or match.
After trailing 24-23 in the third set on the road to Loyola on Jan. 20, they dug deep to score three unanswered points and close out the match. The next week against No. 4 Stanford on Jan. 27, they were down set point to the Cardinal in the first set, but rallied with three unanswered points to earn the victory.
Last Saturday against NJIT, with the second unit on the floor for the entire third set, the Lions trailed for the majority of the set. However, they battled back to take a 20-19 lead and hold on for a 25-23 win. The team’s poise and composure will certainly come in handy when it comes time for high-pressure matches later in this season such as when they travel to Utah to face No. 3 BYU on April 13 and 14.
Areas for improvement
First set struggles
While the team has been very impressive in most facets of the game this season, the Lions have made it a habit to struggle early in matches this season. After the win against Rutgers-Newark last Friday, Pavlik said he would like the team to come out with more energy and focus in the first set. The Lions did just that against NJIT on Saturday by hitting .647, easily a season high for first-set hitting percentage. While it will be tough to maintain that high level of hitting in the beginning of the match every week, the main idea is for the team to come out more focused especially against teams they know they can beat.
Although the Lions have piled up a good number of service aces (54), service errors are still a bit high and have been increasing over the past couple weeks. They had 27 service errors combined against Rutgers-Newark and NJIT last weekend and have 131 for the season.
What to watch for
When will this team lose a set?
The team hasn’t lost a set since Jan. 28 against Pacific and they have only lost five on the season. They face four more EIVA opponents before they have a home showdown with No. 8 Ohio State on March 3. The Lions swept the match in Columbus, so it’s very likely the Buckeyes will come into the match with a lot of motivation to give Penn State more of a fight this time around.
One potential slip up before the Ohio State match could be at Harvard this Friday, as they have not faced the Crimson since the 2009 season. The Crimson are currently third in the EIVA standings.
The Lions have owned the EIVA in their history and after just one week, it’s a safe assumption that they will be the No. 1 seed in the EIVA Tournament this April.
NJIT coach Ryan McNeil said after his team lost to Penn State this past Saturday that Penn State is always at the top and it’s up to everybody else in the conference to catch up to them.
Obviously, the Lions are going to lose a set again this season but in my opinion, it’s not going to happen for a few more weeks.