In its toughest test of the season, the Harvard men’s volleyball team fell to No. 5 Penn State, 3-0, Friday night, in a game that served as a barometer for the Crimson’s national standing.
Despite a packed crowd at the Malkin Athletic Center, Harvard (6-2, 1-2 EIVA) was unable to sustain any meaningful pressure on the powerful Nittany Lions (9-1, 3-0), who controlled the match with a dominant service game. After a hot start that included a five-match winning streak to open the year, the Crimson’s loss to Penn State marked its second defeat in three contests.
“We love to have Harvard students and fans come out like that. It means a lot to our guys,” Harvard coach Brian Baise said. “I wish we could have given them a little bit more to cheer about.”
The first set was largely tight throughout, with six ties and four lead changes. Both teams struggled to get in a rhythm, each committing four service errors in the early action. But a few untimely Harvard miscues allowed Penn State to pull away near the end, securing the set, 25-20.
“We had some communication breakdowns,” said co-captain and outside hitter Matt Jones. “We had some balls hit the floor that we shouldn’t have [allowed].”
Harvard was again within striking distance in the middle of the second set, trailing Penn State, 10-7, but the Nittany Lions embarked on a 10-3 run to take control, eventually cruising to a 25-13 win.
“[Penn State outside hitter Peter Russell] went on a service run” Jones said. “Whenever it was close, their serving kind of took over. We didn’t serve back at them as well.”
Early in the third set, the Crimson built some momentum with kills from Jones and sophomore opposite hitter Nick Madden, taking the lead from Penn State, 8-6. But the Nittany Lions regained the lead, 9-8, with two service aces by junior Nick Turko and never looked back. After a quick 5-0 stretch later in the set that included one powerful kill that struck Jones in the face, Penn State again quieted the Harvard faithful, finishing off the Crimson, 25-17.
“[Penn State] didn’t give us a lot to work with,” Baise said. “I was hoping they would slow up a little bit and give our offense a chance to get going. But from the first point to the last, they were pretty sharp.”
Jones, Madden, and freshman outside hitter D.J. White led Harvard with seven kills each. Redshirt freshman outside hitter Nick Goodell, who did not commit an error in attack, keyed Penn State with 15 kills. The Crimson could not match the Nittany Lions’ ability to extend points, recording 13 digs to Penn State’s 26.
“When we’re not slowing up their offense at all, it really makes for a tough night,” Baise said. “We worked on defense all week, and we couldn’t slow them down.”
For Harvard, the matchup was a measuring stick for its place in the national picture following a 5-0 start. Despite the disappointing result, Baise believed his team still has the potential to compete with the best in the country on any given night.
“We wanted to see where we fit in that scale,” Baise said. “We’ve got a lot of work left to do, but I think we can play with them.”
Following Friday’s loss to the Nittany Lions and Saturday’s win over St. Francis, Harvard sits at fourth place in the EIVA standings. The top four teams earn a spot in the conference playoffs.
“I think we’ve seen that we can be one of those [playoff] teams,” Jones said. “It’s going to be a dogfight for the two, three, and four spots. We have to see what we can do to pick up one of those spots.”