CHICAGO — This time, just winning the EIVA wasn’t enough to send Penn State to a 16th consecutive NCAA men’s volleyball final four.
No, first the Nittany Lions had to win a play-in match.
And so they did, grinding out a tough four-set victory Tuesday night over Lewis, riding the explosive attacks of the Russell brothers, Peter and Aaron, and Nick Goodell, to final scores of 27-25, 19-25, 25-23, 25-19.
Aaron Russell, a 6-foot-9 junior middle, had a match-high 20 kills, nine digs, and four block assists.
His older brother, 6'5" senior outside Peter, had 15 kills, six digs, and three block assists.
And Goodell, the 6'4" junior outside, had 18 kills, six digs, and a couple of block assists.
“Pete’s consistency of passing, he’s kind of the underrated guy,” Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said.
“People look at our team and they talk about Nick, they talk about Aaron, they talk about the serving, but Pete’s the guy who deals with so many balls that are out of system, he takes some good swings, he knows he’s going to be put in some tough situations, but he’s been the one guy who’s embraced the role and responsibilities we gave him and taken it to another level.
“Nick is opposite and in our system the opposite has to do three things: Hit the crap out of the ball, block the crap out of the ball, and serve the crap out of the ball. We get a bonus with Nick defensively. He’s streaky, but when he’s on you can see our team elevate.
“And Aaron, he’s the big dog. Everybody knows we’re going to give him the ball. There are going to be people in front of him. His learning curve as an outside hitter this year, I’ve not seen in my career. Remember he was a middle blocker two years ago.
“These three guys are the keys to us hitting our stride from when we were here last time in March.”
On that trip, Penn State lost at Loyola 3-0 on March 21 and then the next night won at Lewis 3-1.
“It was a little similar to the last time we played them,” Lewis coach Dan Friend said. “It was back and forth and back and forth and a battle between two good teams.”
Penn State improved to 24-6. Lewis saw its season end at 23-8 as it fell to 8-19 all time against the Nittany Lions.
Penn State, making its 29th appearance overall in the national semifinals, won the 1994 and 2008 NCAA titles. Lewis may be in the rear-view mirror, but now the Nittany Lions have to play the No. 1 seed and host school, Loyola, in Thursday night’s final four.
In the first set Tuesday night, there were seven ties from the time it was 18-18 to 25-25, but then James Hoffman had a service error and Penn State’s Aaron Russell, who had kills on the Nittany Lions’ previous two points, aced Loyola.
Penn State hit .519 in the first set; Loyola .370.
Conversely, in the second set, Penn State hit just .105 and Lewis had just 11 kills, four by Geoff Powell and three by Greg Petty. Powell finished with 13 kills, as did teammate Eric Fitterer. Petty had 12.
Things really heated up in the third set, with longer rallies, some bizarre bounces, and, ultimately, Penn State prevailing.
Pavlik called time with the Lions up 18-17, but Lewis had scored five of the previous seven points. It was tied at 19 and three more times after that, the last at 23-23, when Peter Russell buried a birthday ball and then Aaron Russell and Matt Callaway stuff-blocked Fitterer to end the set.
Penn State was in control the entire way in the fourth set.
Matt Siefert’s swing out of the middle off the block of Bobby Walsh clinched it.
“They out-killed us almost by 20,” said Friend, noting that Penn State had 66 kills to his team’s 47, but Lewis had 25 block assists to the Nittany Lions’ 16 and a solo. “We needed to find some kills at key times.”
Pavlik was happy to get his.
“We came up with some key serves at crucial times,” he said, “but this match was not won by our serving. It was won by our defense and our transition swings.
“As the match wore on our side-out offense got more in sync and we protected the leads that we gained.”