The Penn State men’s volleyball team (17-6, 8-1 EIVA) has won the EIVA conference championship for the last 15 years straight, dominating the league in recent memory. On Friday night, it will be coming to challenge Harvard (12-6, 8-2 EIVA) and for the first time in years, the Nittany Lions will not be runaway favorites.
“The team’s been looking forward to this one for a while,” co-captain Nick Madden said. “We’re excited for both these teams this weekend.”
Only three spaces separate the two teams in the national rankings with Penn State coming in ranked 12th and the Crimson at No. 15.
While Harvard has been excellent at home this season—the Crimson is currently on a seven-game home win streak, with six wins in straight sets—history does lie with the visitors. Penn State is 8-1 against Harvard in its previous nine meetings, with the Crimson’s lone victory coming last season at the Malkin Athletic Center. The Nittany Lions have since avenged that defeat, winning the EIVA postseason final in straight sets, and then doing so again this season when the teams met in Pennsylvania.
At stake for both teams is the top seed for the EIVA tournament, which is crucial as the top seed hosts the tournament and draws an easier semifinal draw. A Penn State win all but wraps up the one seed for them, with only a single loss to Princeton in conference play so far this season. Harvard swept the Tigers this season but has already fallen twice in conference play—once to Penn State and once in an upset loss away to George Mason.
A Crimson win would tie the two teams atop the EIVA with an even head-to-head record. According to the EIVA rules, the next determinant to end the tie is head-to-head games won. Given Harvard lost to Penn State in straight sets earlier this season, only a straight sets win would tie things up, else Penn State would have to falter again down the stretch for the Crimson to gain home-court advantage in the playoffs.
“I think the team that’s going to win that match is the team that is the steadiest,” said Harvard coach Brian Baise, speaking last weekend. “I think that’s going to be about star players stepping up. I think if we can handle their serves, and I think we can and we’ve improved a lot in that area, we will be right there with them. It’s going to be a lot of fun. There will be a lot of people here, and they’re a great team, but I feel like if we’re not helping them, and we’re not making unforced errors I think we’ll be right there with them.”
While many Nittany Lions have received acclaim, one stands out. Reigning EIVA Offensive Player of the Week and preseason All-American junior Aaron Russell is a 6’9’’ power hitter who leads the Penn State offense with four kills a set at a hitting percentage of .347, both of which lead the team. Stopping Russell will be vital for Harvard.
“They’re able to play good all-around volleyball,” co-captain Chris Gibbons said. “Defensively, they’re good. Offensively, they can beat you if they play hard. They’re just very solid at the fundamental parts of volleyball so we have to step up and play good volleyball ourselves.”
This season the Crimson has been at its best when its offense has been performing well. According to Madden, igniting that spark is the key to winning.
“I think a lot of [the game] is going to come down to our serving and passing,” Madden said. “If we serve well enough to keep them off net and put some pressure on them, then that will help our defense out a lot. And if we’re passing well, I think our offense will be flowing. If we serve and pass well I think we’ve got a good shot.”
As for the strength of Harvard’s opponent, Madden cites the speed with which the Nittany Lions attack as a vital factor.
“They have a very fast offense which is tough to play defense against,” Madden said. “You have to read the center really well and you have to get hands up over the middle. They’re a pretty well balanced team and the fast offense will put some pressure on us but we’ve been preparing for that and I think we should be ready.”
After the Penn State tilt, the Crimson will host St. Francis on Saturday afternoon. According to Madden, it is a huge weekend of volleyball for Harvard and perhaps the beginning of the end of Penn State’s dominance over the EIVA.
“If we get wins this Friday and Saturday, it would one clinch the playoffs for us and two give us a lot of momentum going into the postseason and also give us a chance to take first place in our league which is something we have never done,” Madden said. “It would mean a lot to us to get two wins this weekend and we’re practicing with that in mind.”
—Staff writer Julian Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.