At the end of the 2011 season, the Harvard men’s volleyball team found itself tied for second-to-last in the EIVA rankings with only one conference win to its name.
But 2012 has been an entirely different story, as the Crimson has stormed to second place in the conference and is on the brink of guaranteeing itself a place in the EIVA semifinals in late April.
To do so, Harvard (16-3, 8-2 EIVA) will have to overcome stiff challenges from the two teams flanking the Crimson in the rankings, as the squad travels to Pennsylvania to take on third-place St. Francis and conference leaders, No. 7 Penn State.
"Last year…we were hanging in there with teams but not getting the wins that we needed," sophomore libero Chris Gibbons said. "So to not only be getting those wins, but looking at the playoffs this year is pretty cool. All the guys on the team are pretty excited."
The Crimson should expect an easier matchup Friday night against St. Francis (11-13, 6-5 EIVA), as Harvard comfortably won their last meeting in straight sets. But considering the importance of the final games, the Crimson is not taking anything for granted.
"St. Francis is going to come out hard," Gibbons said. "They are fighting to stay alive and find a way into the playoffs. But we know their tendencies. We’ve watched a lot of film on them…so we have a pretty good game plan for our defense."
A road win Friday night against the Red Flash would lock up a spot in the EIVA semifinals, and would also go a long way in assuring Harvard at least the two seed heading into the conference tournament.
But to do that, the Crimson will face two strong middle blockers in Adam Roche and Mark Kochan. Roche currently leads the EIVA and ranks third in the country in blocks per set with 1.54. Kochan sits at fourth in the league with 1.14.
Harvard will rely on outside hitters Nick Madden and co-captain Matt Jones, who currently ranks third in the conference in kills per set (3.74), to break through the St. Francis defense.
Freshman outside hitter DJ White, third in the EIVA in hitting percentage (.329) must also make an offensive impact for the Crimson to earn the win on Friday.
Saturday will be a clash of two of the best hitting and serving teams in the country.
The Nittany Lions (18-3, 11-0 EIVA) and Harvard rank fifth and sixth, respectively, in hitting percentage, with both teams registering almost 13 kills per set.
Penn State is led by outside hitter Joe Sunder. The 6’7" junior boasts the highest hitting percentage (.339) in the EIVA.
At the heart of its defense, the Crimson looks to Gibbons to resist its opponent’s strong hitting. Gibbons paces Harvard with 2.31 digs per set and is known for his ability to make impressive defensive bids to keep points alive.
The Nittany Lions also have strong service from middle hitter Nick Turko, who maintains the second-best service ace per set ratio in the EIVA. It was the overpowering service from Turko and the rest of the Penn State lineup that prevented the Crimson from finding its offensive rhythm in its Feb. 17th loss at the Malkin Athletic Center.