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Much has changed in the world of men’s volleyball since Harvard and Penn State last squared off for a conference matchup.
Then, in late February, the Crimson walked onto its home court with a chance to wrest control of first place away from the Nittany Lions. Harvard entered with only one league loss and a spot just outside the top 15 in the polls.
At the end of the night, however, the only statistic that mattered was the final one: Penn State 3, Harvard 1.
Now, in early April, there is neither an extended winning streak nor an impressive national ranking. Last weekend, the Crimson dispatched third-place Princeton only to fall to last-place NJIT a day later. The defeat shoved Harvard three games into second place behind Penn State, which holds an undefeated conference record.
For two months and some days, the teams’ narratives have diverged, but they will coincide again on Friday night when the Nittany Lions host the Crimson at Universal Park, Pa.
“If we receive their serve well and pass a good game, we can compete,” Harvard coach Brian Baise said. “If we don’t, they’re awfully tough.”
As different as the world looks since the last matchup, several important forces remain unchanged.
The first force has a name and a title: Aaron Russell, All-American and Nittany Lion outside hitter.
Averaging nearly five kills per set, Russell is the most efficient player on the most efficient offense in the EIVA.
“[Aaron is] probably the best player in the conference and one of the top players in the country,” co-captain Caleb Zimmick said.
In Penn State’s first matchup against the Crimson, however, teammate Nick Goodell stole the spotlight, matching a career high of 25 kills, including nine in the deciding set.
On the season, Russell and Goodell have combined for 583 finishes. This offense has propelled the Nittany Lions to nine straight victories heading into Friday’s competition.
In response to this attack, the Crimson will trot out the strongest defense in the league. Led by co-captain Caleb Zimmick, who averages 2.49 blocks per set, Harvard has tallied 182 blocks and 713 digs, the first tops in the EIVA, the latter second.
The Crimson attack is no slouch either, as five players have accumulated more than 100 kills. Co-captain D.J. White and junior outside hitter Branden Clemens lead the squad with 236 and 229 finishes, respectively.
But if the Penn State matchup has the makings of a heavyweight championship, the subsequent contest against St. Francis looks more like a beat-down. The Red Flash is worst in the conference in terms of average kills, blocks, and points won.
Even so it’s hard to blame the Crimson if it approaches the weekend, consciously or not, with a single opponent on its mind. Now ranked No. 7 in the nation, Penn State has not lost to an opponent outside the top 15 all season.
History may belong to the Nittany Lions, but for now at least, Friday night belongs to nobody.
“[Penn State] has beaten a lot of good teams,” Zimmick said. “We know what they bring, but also, reflecting on how we played against them earlier this year…we know that we can compete.”
—Staff writer Sam Danello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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