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The Harvard men’s volleyball team entered this weekend with a pair of possibilities—the chance of marring Penn State’s unblemished conference record on one day and solidifying a playoff position on the next with a win over St. Francis.
Despite displaying short stretches dominant performances, the Crimson (11-11, 5-5 EIVA) failed to achieve either objective, losing to the Nittany Lions (15-9, 9-0) and the Red Flash (6-17, 4-5) in two tightly contested matches.
ST. FRANCIS 3, HARVARD 1
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a cellar dweller and a potential title contender walk into a gym in the middle of Pennsylvania.
On paper, Saturday’s contest between second-to-last St. Francis and second-place Harvard may have sounded like a joke, but the Red Flash preempted any laughter, downing the Crimson 3-1 after initially going up, 2-0.
“Defensively [it was] probably not the best match,” co-captain Caleb Zimmick said. “Serving too. Those are a couple of things that were within our control and parts that we didn’t execute.”
The result complicated the EIVA playoff picture, as the four schools battling for the final three postseason spots are now within a one-game range.
On Saturday, St. Francis dominated on the defensive end, building a 14-9 block advantage.
Even so, Harvard mounted a comeback in the third frame when the Crimson fended off a pair of match points to claim the set, 28-26.
In the fourth game, the Red Flash returned the favor. After a seesawing sequence handed the visitors a 23-22 advantage, St. Francis won three consecutive points to take the contest.
The Red Flash built a 2-0 lead thanks largely to opposite Mike Marshman, who racked up 12 kills without committing an error on the afternoon. Nine of these finishes came in the first two sets, which St. Francis took, 25-23 and 25-22.
“Any team in our conference can beat any other team on any given day,” said junior outside hitter Branden Clemens. “We always need to make sure to play our hardest…. Every match counts toward making the conference playoffs.”
PENN STATE 3, HARVARD 2
Friday night, on the home court of league-leading Penn State, only seven points separated Harvard from a historic result.
Midway through the fourth set, the Crimson held an 18-13 lead, a 2-1 set advantage, and the opportunity to claim a win on the Nittany Lions’ home court for the first time ever.
But Penn State, winner of 16 straight EIVA championships and 17 straight conference matches, had no desire to halt the trend.
Thanks to a 12-3 run, the Nittany Lions salvaged the set, 25-21. Then, in the tiebreaking game, Penn State won eight of the first nine points en route to a 15-10 victory.
“We’re definitely disappointed as a whole,” Zimmick said. “There were certain points where we weren’t able to convert offensively, which was partly due to our inability and partly due to their defense.”
In the second and third sets, however, it was Harvard that pulled the decisive punches.
Clinging on to a 20-19 advantage in the second set, the Crimson put together a 5-1 streak to tie the game score at one-apiece. One frame later, Harvard repeated the trick, responding to a 22-21 deficit by winning five of the last seven points.
“They’re a great serving team, and we were handling their serves well,” Zimmick said. “Especially in the games we won, we did not allow them to get on any service runs.”
The first set consisted of a similar narrative, albeit with a different result. After the two teams battled to an 18-all deadlock, the Nittany Lions won five straight points and eventually took the frame, 25-20.
Throughout the night, Penn State’s Aaron Russell verified his All-American status by finishing with a game-high 26 kills and three service aces.
“We need to figure out how to close,” Clemens said. “It was very positive that we could hang with them and even take the lead…. Now we just need that last little push.”
—Staff writer Sam Danello can be reached at email@example.com.
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