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Third-ranked, EIVA-leading Penn State has “makings of a team that can go on a deep run”

Everything seemed to be clicking for the Penn State men last spring. In late February, the Nittany Lions were starting to hit their stride as 28th-year coach Mark Pavlik found what he believed to be the perfect mix to get the Nittany Lions back into the national-championship conversation.

That included then-freshman Michael Valenzi, who, eventually, would win EIVA Newcomer of the Year.

But in a February 26 match against NJIT, Valenzi was lost to a season-ending injury. “That,” said Pavlik, “changed our dynamic just enough … the way we were playing and the trajectory we were on were altered just enough.”

Penn State still went on to win the EIVA and then its first NCAA Tournament match by sweeping Belmont Abbey before getting swept by Lewis in the national quarterfinals.

It was a disappointing end to a season of promise.

But almost all of Penn State’s key players returned, and after Friday’s sweep over Charleston, the Nittany Lions not only moved up to No. 3 in this week’s AVCA men’s poll, they are 13-3 overall and in charge of the EIVA at 8-0.

The next test is Tuesday, when the Nittany Lions travel to Columbus, Ohio, for the first of back-to-back matches against No 13 Ohio State (9-6) of the MIVA. Ohio State returns the trip when it plays at Penn State on Sunday.

“We went into this year with some pretty high expectations and the guys have embraced those expectations and have run with them,” Pavlik said.

“And when they play, I’ve gotten more compliments from the people in the stands this year that they find them so much fun to watch. It’s one of those teams that you just want to hang onto forever.”

It almost seems as if a few of the Nittany Lions have, indeed, been around forever. Namely senior right side Cal Fisher, senior outside Brett Wildman and senior setter Cole Bogner. Between them, they have played more than 200 collegiate matches and reaped numerous conference and national awards.

Fisher, a 6-foot-3 product of Pittsburgh, entered the week leading the EIVA in kills per set (3.58) and total kills (190) and was second in aces per set (0.60). Wildman, a 6-5 product of Virginia Beach, is right behind in kills per set (3.44) and is third in total kills (186). Bogner, a 6-3 product of Chesapeake, Virginia, leads the conference in assists per set (10.43).

Fisher has turned himself into one of the most well-rounded players in the nation, excelling, Pavlik said, in all areas of the game. He certainly has lived up to his bloodlines: His mother, Charlotte, still holds Eastern Kentucky’s career mark for aces (330) and played professionally in Spain, and his older sister, Arden, was a standout at Robert Morris before professional stints in Switzerland and Albania.

(As a side note, the Nittany Lions have three players whose mothers were accomplished volleyball players. Fellow senior Canyon Tuman’s mother, Molly Dreisbach, played at Kentucky and for the USA national team and coaches club for Pittsburgh Elite. His father is a pretty fair athlete, too: Former NFL tight end Jerame Tuman. And sophomore outside Will Kuhns’ mother, Kathy Wotus, was an all-American at Division II Gannon and is a member of the school’s hall of fame.)

Fisher “has everything that you want in a player for this era of the men’s game,” Pavilk said. “Back in the day, probably when I started and even in the ’90s, it was set the ball higher, put it to the pin, let your hitter go up and challenge their blockers.

“Now, it’s becoming more of a speed game, and athletes are changing. And I think Fish is the prototypical athlete for that. I don’t think we can set him faster than he can hit it. He also has really started to understand his physical gifts and how he can make those work for him.”

Penn State’s Cal Fisher /Craig Houtz, Penn State Athletics

Fisher is hitting .300 for his career and is approaching 700 kills. His 127 aces — a team-high 32 this season — are among the top 10 in program history, and Pavlik noted Fisher’s defense and passing are underrated.

Not bad for a guy who grew up without high school volleyball. Fisher attended tiny Riverview High School in the Pittsburgh suburb of Oakmont, famous for its country club that has hosted numerous golf majors. Riverview had no boys volleyball team, so Fisher played just one season, latching on with neighboring Penn Hills High School to play as part of a co-op. (Penn Hills, incidentally, produced former Penn State All-American Ed Josefoski and current Notre Dame women’s coach Salima (Davidson) Rockwell.)

Playing only club, Fisher got roughly half the volleyball experience most of his peers got.

“I think my game has improved immensely,” Fisher said. “Getting here, I found some coaches who really could influence me and my game to be the best it can be. Even now we’re still improving on that and fine-tuning some things.”

Added Wildman: “It’s always fun having somebody on the team who you know is going to put the ball away at a very high percentage, even when you’re in a tough position. That’s what you really need in a right side. And his serve is pretty deadly. When you get him back there maybe three times in a set, you know he’s going to make it tough on the other team.”

Penn State’s Brett Wildman/Craig Houtz, Penn State Athletics

Wildman, like Fisher, Pavlik said, now is at the point where he simply is improving on the skills he already has. Specifically, he is figuring out when to be physical and when to use finesse.

Pavlik, who is originally from Pittsburgh, often likes to talk in metaphors involving the hometown baseball team. With Wildman, he cited the mantra of former Pirates pitching coach Ray Miller: Work fast, change speeds, throw strikes.

Mark Pavlik

Pavlik pointed to the Nittany Lions’ recent win over EIVA foe NJIT as an example. The Highlanders pushed Penn State to a fifth set — shocking because the Nittany Lions had swept their previous six conference matches — and the score was tied 12-12.

Wildman stepped to the service line.

“Just because you can serve a ball 73 mph,” Pavlik said during his Ray Miller analogy, “doesn’t mean you have to serve it 73 mph.”

On his first serve, Wildman took some speed off and placed a ball perfectly in the back corner for an ace. On his next attempt, he took even more pace off the ball for a second ace.

“Basically, that was the match,” Pavlik said. “I think that’s where Brett is with his entire game now. He’s starting to understand, here’s what I can do, so what’s the appropriate range of physicality I need to be effective in a given situation?”

Said Fisher: “It’s so fun playing next to him. He brings a crazy amount of energy to everything he does. And his focus on the court, in practice and in games, even off the court, is awesome, and it’s so fun to watch. We have built a lot of trust between each other playing together for four years now.”

Besides the return of its experienced stars, Penn State got some other boosts heading into the season.

The Nittany Lions entered two teams in the inaugural USA Volleyball Men’s Collegiate Beach Challenge. Fisher and partner Will Bantle, a redshirt senior, won the event in Owings Mills, Maryland. Penn State’s other team, Valenzi and freshman Ryan Merk, defeated the runner-up duo from USC during pool play.

Meanwhile, 6-5 senior middle Sam Marsh was in slightly more damp environs, working feverishly on his game. Marsh went back to his native England to hone the skills that would help to shore up PSU’s middle.

Penn State’s Toby Ezeonu/Mark Selders, Penn State Athletics

And then there is sophomore middle Toby Ezenou. The product of North Brunswick, New Jersey, entered Penn State last year with only raw athletic ability and a couple of club and high school seasons under his belt.

At 6-7 with a 7-2 wingspan and the ability to touch 12 feet, Ezenou had the physical gifts. It was a matter of his volleyball acumen catching up.

Pavlik knew he had a project on his hands. Ezenou saw spot duty in 10 matches (19 sets) last season. Now, after a summer of strength and conditioning and polishing his craft, Ezenou has emerged as, in Wildman’s words, “a force and a beast.”

Added Fisher: “Toby has made a huge impact this year. … That’s definitely something we saw last year in the practice gym. He’s just finally getting to show it. That makes it so difficult for the other teams to defend if all parts of the offense are running smoothly with Cole setting everybody. That’s a very hard team to play, and that’s the team we’ve become this year with our middles so efficient.”

This season, Ezenou is hitting .500 (104 kills in 174 attacks with 17 errors) and has 46 total blocks. In the Nittany Lions’ win at then-No. 3 Long Beach State in late January, he took 17 swings — 16 resulted in kills — and the one that didn’t, happened to hit a Long Beach player in the shoulder to stay alive.

“Having him in there frees up a lot of other stuff,” Wildman said. “He’ll go off one night and put up a crazy stat line, but even on the nights when it looks like he had a mild night … yeah, but every time there was a perfect pass (the opposing) middles were popping on him and creating opportunity for other guys. Teams have to respect that now.”

Marsh is doing his part, too, hitting .385 with 35 total blocks. Valenzi, the 6-2 sophomore from Boca Raton, Florida, is averaging 1.23 kills

Pavlik put the team through its paces early in the season, with trips to the West Coast in back-to-back weeks to play some of the best teams in the nation.

The first trip, January 21 and 22, resulted in two four-set losses to now top-ranked UCLA and USC, currently No 6.

The following weekend, it was back to California, and Penn State opened by getting swept by now-No. 5 UC Santa Barbara in a match Wildman called “embarrassing.”

Pavlik was convinced the next night’s match against Long Beach, currently No. 2, could be a disaster. Instead, his team played what he called its “best match to date” and came away with a 25-27, 25-21, 20-25, 25-23, 15-11 victory.

NJIT, too, was an important match for the Nittany Lions. Pavlik went back to a Pirates analogy: In the early 1990s, when Doug Drabek was one of the majors’ best pitchers, there were plenty of nights when he had to work out of jams repeatedly to scratch out a win.

That, Pavlik concluded, described Penn State’s performance against the Highlanders: They found a way to get a win despite scuffling with their repertoire.

“We lost to UCLA and USC … and we knew we didn’t play our best volleyball,” Wildman said. “Santa Barbara, we ended up playing pretty poor volleyball again that Friday night. We had to just kind of have a pow-wow and reset our brains, and I think we started to press a little too hard. I think that’s when our experience took over. I think it was evident in our turnaround, being able to come out the next night and beat Long Beach at their place.

“But more than anything, even if we had lost that match, we made that mental switch that we needed to.

“Then NJIT was a different type of win. We had been rolling (through the EIVA), playing well. We just didn’t have our best stuff, and NJIT was playing well. We had to kind of figure out a way to win when we didn’t have our best stuff and we were playing against a good opponent.”

There still are rough edges to smooth. Pavlik said he would like to see better transition and more offensive consistency.

The Nittany Lions aren’t built to overpower opponents. Rather, they rely on strong serving that gets opponents out of system, giving them an opportunity to put up a solid block, dig around it then use their athleticism to set and hit the ball quickly.

After the Ohio State series, Penn State has eight more EIVA matches. The Nittany Lions hold a two-game lead over Saint Francis (PA). The EIVA Tournament is April 20-23, with the winner getting an automatic NCAA bid. Penn State is certainly one of the teams that could get an at-large should it not win the EIVA tourney.

“We have the makings of a team that can go on a deep run,” Pavlik said. “We’re going to try to control what we can control and see if our best is better than theirs on a given night.”

Said Wildman: “Without a doubt. We know it because we’ve played the best, we’ve beaten the best. And we’ve lost to the best, and we’ve learned from that. I think we have confidence in the pieces to put it together, so it will be a really exciting end of the season.

“But there are five or 10 other teams who are thinking the same thing and can do the same thing. So also having the respect for those other teams. Putting all those things together, knowing what we can do, we can definitely make a run.”

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