Don't Doubt the East

For men's volleyball fans who think everything important happens on the West Coast, Penn State dares you to think again.

Penn State Athletics
Senior Tom Comfort is one of the Nittany Lions' leaders this season.

Mark Pavlik might not like it, but the rest of us almost assume that Penn State will be at the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship, which will be held this year May 2-4 at UCLA. To wit: in Pavlik’s tenure at State College, only once (in 1998) did Penn State not make it to the national semifinals. That includes last season, when it lost to eventual winner UC Irvine in four sets.

Penn State opened the 2013 season in Hawaii at the Outrigger Invitational and, after losing to UCLA in five, took Hawaii in five and then swept Ohio State. After mid-January matches against Lewis (which lost to USC in last year’s national semifinals) and Loyola-Chicago, PSU began its Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (EIVA) season.

This might be a good time to point out that after getting home from Hawaii, Pavlik stood 436-127 overall at Penn State and 197-5 in EIVA play. But when it was suggested that he keep his team focused on playing against eastern teams because they are less competitive, the 19th-year coach wasn’t hearing any of it.

“Don’t buy into that crap,” Pavlik said. “I’m very serious, because people look at Harvard and Princeton and George Mason and say they’re not ranked, but I’m telling you right now this is the toughest EIVA in my career.

“Harvard is good. Princeton is good. Mason is good. Just because of the economics of the situation they don’t get to crisscross the country.”
Most of the other powerful teams are in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), a 13 team league that includes such stalwarts as Irvine, USC, UCLA, Stanford, Hawaii, Pepperdine, and BYU.

Pavlik commented on the imbalance of interleague games. “They’re running a 13-team double round-robin. They’re using up 24 dates for their league out of the 28 dates that we’re allowed. So nobody from the West is coming east. So these teams are not going to play anybody [from the West Coast] on their home court.” Pavlik adds that the home court advantage could help EIVA teams. “You give Ohio State the opportunity to play the same field that was out at the Outrigger in Columbus and I’m not so sure Ohio State doesn’t go 3-0 instead of 1-2.”

Because East Coast teams don’t have to play as many of the West Coast teams during the regular season, some say Penn State has an easier entrance into the tournament. Pavlik disagrees. “I’m telling you, we’re going to get knocked off at some point this season in the EIVA. Now, whether a team can beat us twice, and once when it matters, I don’t know.”

Last year, Harvard took Penn State to five sets at State College, and it took the Lions five to win at Princeton in a season in which the Nittany Lions finished 23-6 and 14-0 in the EIVA.

“Anybody that has to live through what we have to live through knows that this is not going to be easy,” said Pavlik, who was an assistant coach at his alma mater when Penn State won the 1994 national title. He took over as head coach in 1995, which marked the first of four championship-match appearances, which included winning it all in 2008.

During his tenure Pavlik has had to deal with people thinking competitive NCAA men’s volleyball is only located in California. “[There are] people who think the volleyball sun rises and sets on the West Coast.”

Well, actually it does set on the West Coast, but that’s another issue for another day. In the meantime, West Coast teams certainly know that the Nittany Lions are serious contenders, especially after their 2-1 trip to Hawaii in which they hit .297.

“The destination’s wonderful,” Pavlik said. “This was the 19th Outrigger. It just gives us a great starting point to see how we stack up against quality teams, teams that look at us and say if you’re not going to be at your best we’re going to beat you. I really liked the three days we put in over there.”

The Lions might have a new look, but the results from the early games gave no reason to think they’re not in the NCAA title hunt again. Gone is super leaper Joe Sunder, who had a team-high 338 kills and hit .330, but several new starters look very promising.

In Hawaii, sophomore Aaron Russell completed his switch from middle to outside and the product of Ellicott City, Md., led with 3.23 kills per set, while his older brother Peter got 3.20, and Tom Comfort followed closely with 3.00.

“We just look for Aaron to get better and better,” Pavlik said.

The team has a redshirt freshman, 6'4" Taylor Hammond from Mission Viejo, Calif., as their setter.

“Taylor hit the ground running and I thought he had a really good tournament and so did other people,” Pavlik said. “You’ve got guys playing for the first time in their positions against Hawaii, UCLA, and Ohio State, so they did well. Peter had a really good tournament, the three middles we have, (redshirt freshman) Matt Seifert, (senior) Nick Turko and (senior) Ian Hendries, did what we expected them to do and a little bit more. We were pleased with Seifert stepping in for his first competition, since he was redshirted last year.

When asked how he felt about the team’s outlook, Pavlik responded with candor. “I don’t know where our ceiling is and I say that honestly. I don’t know if this is as good as we’re going to get, or how good we’re going to get. As a group, this team is not afraid of hard work. They’re one of those teams that is fun to be in the gym with. They get in there and work hard. We sweat pretty well.”

He laughed and admitted that might not correlate to victories, but it can’t hurt.

“We’ve thrown a lot of things at them and they’ve responded well,” Pavlik said. “This team lets go of the past pretty well, too. I believe it lives in the moment better than a lot of teams I’ve had in the past.”

No matter how the team may grow in the future, for now it certainly has the attention of the rest of the EIVA and the teams on the West Coast.

Originally published in March/April 2013

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