Penn State’s players returned to their hotel rooms with one more win under their belts as they secured their first tournament win against Belmont Abbey.
In their battle against the Crusaders, the Nittany Lions were too much for Belmont Abbey’s defense to handle in a clean sweep in favor of the blue and white.
When they reached the end of their conference season, several of Penn State’s players explained that they still had much to look forward to.
As they move toward their second round matchup with Lewis, the Nittany Lions have taken the time to attribute their success to the members of their team who are often overlooked: the passers.
And according to coach Mark Pavlik and company, they are grateful to have won their first NCAA Tournament match, but the work is hardly over yet.
“We knew coming in, [Belmont Abbey] was going to scratch and claw everything for them,” Pavlik said. “Game one, we knew we had to survive. This is the first time in a long time that Penn State has been here with a group that has never been to an NCAA championship before, so no matter how you describe it to the guys, it's up to them to feel it out for themselves.”
Penn State received its bid to the postseason after winning the EIVA Tournament on Apr. 24, securing its 32nd such title.
The 2021 roster is the first Nittany Lion squad in four years to receive a bid as the blue and white had not secured a place in the tournament since 2017.
Currently, there are no seniors on Penn State’s squad, so juniors Will Bantle and Cole Bogner have become the team’s de facto leaders. Taking the court as the team’s libero and setter, respectively, they have pushed their teammates to success all season long, and especially Monday night.
“I think the unsung heroes [Monday night] were our passers. We were in the system 95% of the time and that helped Cole keep pressure on Belmont Abbey,” Pavlik said. “We are going to need that type of pressure against [Lewis].”
The 6-foot-3 Chesapeake, Virginia, native ranks first in the EIVA for assists (747), and second in assists per set (9.70).
According to Pavlik, Bogner could be considered one of the top setters in the nation, something he has accomplished thanks to his fast thinking and faith in his teammates.
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Belmont Abbey’s time in the NCAA Tournament was a brief one due to Penn State’s outstanding play.
Over the season, Bogner has collected 1,059 total attacks, 284 digs and 34 assists. Such statistics demonstrate he is more than capable of working alongside teammates Cal Fisher and Brett Wildman, all of which were 2021 All-American Second Team selections.
“[Bogner’s] always kind of been able to throw their defense off and get their block, jumping around on us, that always makes our jobs easier,” Fisher said. “It gives us the ability to hit as efficiently as we can.”
Another player who took control of the first and second contacts on the court in Monday night’s match was Bantle.
As the blue and white’s libero, Bantle’s main job is controlling the ball and keeping it in play as long as possible, something that gives his team the opportunity to produce the longer rallies Penn State fans have come to expect this season.
Bantle is ranked second in the EIVA in digs with 113 and ranks third in digs with 147.
“We knew Belmont Abbey was a pretty good passing team when we watched their league matches and their playoffs,” Pavlik said. “We came in and recognized our strengths. If we can serve well and put their team in trouble, it will make it easier on us.”
Efficient passing has been a huge determinant in Penn State’s success all season. Since the blue and white made it a priority to improve the minute aspects of its game, it has only continued to improve, which was on full display during Monday’s affair.
Penn State played a clean game with minimal errors, but Bantle and Bogner’s pressences prevented the Crusaders from taking easy points, putting pressure on their defense by extending rallies past the point of redemption for Belmont Abbey.
“Game one, we found our legs a little bit. Our serving started to become a little bit more consistent and our offense really started to hum in games two and three,” Pavlik said. “It was a really good start to this tournament for us and right now, it’s just a matter of trying to be ready for the fight against Lewis.”
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