BY JAY DESSY
After taking the first set 25-20, the men’s volleyball team kept the pressure on Penn State in the second as they pulled ahead to a 16-11 lead. The Tigers had good ball movement, strong defense and consistent serving that controlled the tempo of the game. Behind an energetic home crowd in Dillon Gymnasium, Princeton seemed poised to upset the 13th-ranked Nittany Lions. However, the upset attempt ultimately fell short.
It was the middle of the second set when the momentum began to shift in favor of Penn State (17-6 overall, 11-1 EIVA). The Nittany Lions put together a stretch in which they won six of eight points and grabbed the lead on one of sophomore middle hitter Aaron Russell’s 18 kills at 22-21. They would take the set 25-23 to even the score at one apiece.
Princeton (10-7, 8-3) would never fully recover from the swing in the second set. While they hung tight with the Nittany Lions in the beginning of both the third and fourth sets, the Tigers ultimately came up short, 25-18 and 25-20.
“They turned up their service pressure,” head coach Sam Shweisky said. “They did a really nice job serving much more consistently and strongly than they had been in sets three and four, and we didn’t respond quite as well as I would have hoped with our reception. A lot of the game is about serving and passing. In sets one and two, I feel that we served well and passed well.”
Princeton was led by junior outside hitter Pat Shwagler, who finished with 16 kills. Shwagler also dominated on his service, thanks to a powerful serve with a lot of spin. Sophomore outside hitter and reigning EIVA Newcomer of the Year Cody Kessel, who was playing in just his second game since returning from an injury, added nine kills and six digs of his own. Senior middle blocker Michael Dye added six kills and four blocks as well.
While the Tigers came up short on Friday, their success has come in their ability to adjust their game plan for each opponent. They use a lot of statistical analysis in preparation for and during the game that allows them to focus on the weaknesses of the other team.
“Throughout the game we see what the opponent is doing at every rotation,” Shweisky said. “They made a few changes and substitutions that changed the original pattern that they’d been doing, so we are constantly changing blocking patterns in response. These kids are really smart and great at making changes on the fly. It’s amazing what you can do tactically with Princeton kids.”
The home crowd provided a spark for the Tigers that helped them get out to an early lead. The stands in Dillon Gym were completely packed, forcing people to stand around the perimeter. “It helps 1,000 percent,” Shweisky said. “It was the best home crowd we have had in my three years here.”
The Tigers left the game with some good news, however, as a Saint Francis loss to George Mason clinched a berth for the Tigers in the EIVA postseason tournament. The Tigers have their eyes on the EIVA championship, which would be the first for Princeton since 1998. Their road to winning the league crown would probably go through Penn State, which has won the conference every year since 1981 except for Princeton’s lone 1998 victory. Princeton’s upcoming games against Harvard and Sacred Heart on Friday and Saturday will be important in determining the Tigers’ seed in the conference championship tournament that will take place in late April.