Every good band needs a “farewell” tour. (OK, some seem to have more farewells than others.) Penn State’s power trio of Cal Fisher, Brett Wildman and Cole Bogner brought theirs to the NCAA’s National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship in Fairfax, Virginia, on Tuesday.

It also could be called a revenge tour.

Whatever the name, it will have at least one more performance after the EIVA-champion Nittany Lions (27-3) outlasted the MIVA’s Ohio State 25-22, 24-26, 25-13, 26-24 in a de facto Big Ten championship.

The teams played twice in the regular season, with each winning once. Ohio State, which got an at-large spot in the seven-team NCAA field, opened play Tuesday with sweep of Conference Carolinas champ King. The Buckeyes, who finished in a three-way tie for first in the MIVA, ended their season 23-10.

Penn State advances to face second-seeded Hawai’i (28-2) in Thursday’s second semifinal at 7:30 p.m. Eastern at George Mason. Penn State was one of the two teams to beat Hawai’i, which won the Big West, this season.

The other semifinal, set for 5 p.m. Eastern, pits top overall seed UCLA (29-2) against Long Beach State (21-4). Long Beach dispatched Grand Canyon in four sets Tuesday.

Penn State’s Owen Rose gets over the Ohio State block/NCAA photo

Now, about the “revenge” aspect of Penn State’s season.

Last year, the Nittany Lions cruised to a 16-0 mark in the EIVA and looked to be one of the favorites headed into the NCAA tournament. That was until Princeton, which had lost twice  to Penn State during the regular season, pulled the upset in the EIVA final.

Princeton got the EIVA’s automatic bid, while the Nittany Lions, whose season ended 23-4, stayed home.

So few could blame coach Mark Pavlik’s players — particularly the aforementioned veterans — if they were a little cranky Tuesday. They played like it.

Fisher was nearly unstoppable, amassing 18 kills (.533), seven block assists and three aces, one of which came in the fourth set with the score tied 24-24. An Ohio State attack error on the next point gave Penn State the match.

“I think it was less focusing on (Ohio State’s) side, but Pav pulled me over after the first set and just said I was kind of rushing my toss and stepping too quick into it,” Fisher said about his serving. “So just kind of pace myself, slow it down and work back into a rhythm, and I think that helped a lot.”

Wildman finished with nine kills, two aces and three block assists.

Bogner had 35 assists, five digs and three block assists.

Penn State also got a lift from junior middle blocker Toby Ezeonu. Ezeonu hurt his ankle in the EIVA tournament and was questionable for Tuesday’s match. Sam Marsh, a two-time all-conference performer, played the bulk of the first two sets in Ezeonu’s place.

But as the match wore on, Ezeonu got more involved. And while his tangible contributions were limited to two kills, two block assists and an ace, he had all of those in the final set. His first block tied the score 18-18, his second one tied it again at 19-19 and his ace put Penn State up 20-19.

His presence certainly caused Ohio State to focus more attention on the 6-foot-7 human pogo stick at the net.

“Throwing Toby in brought a different energy that we had in games three and four,” Pavlik said.

Added freshman libero Ryan Merk, who had 10 digs: “Having Toby up there, he just covers so much more room, so me, as a defender, everything is pretty much taken, so I stay balanced and wait for a touch.”

Fisher said Ezeonu and Marsh becoming more active — even if they weren’t filling up the stat sheet — was key to opening up opportunities for him.

“Ohio State was pinching with them and read blocking on them,” Fisher said, “so I think that helps open up some court for me, and Cole does a great job of finding me.”

Ohio State, meanwhile, showed plenty of bounce-back. After losing the first set 25-22, the Buckeyes earned a 26-24 victory in the second to even the match.

“It was a fun match to watch from a coaching standpoint,” said Ohio State’s Kevin Burch, in his fourth season at the helm of the Buckeyes. “I’ll go to battle with my guys any day of the week, and I think they deserve a lot of credit for how they played all year long.

“Especially in this match. They didn’t give up at any point … but Penn State made a couple more plays than we did at the end, and they deserved to win.”

Added redshirt junior middle blocker Justin Howard: “That’s how we’ve been all year, just bouncing back sets after sets. If they don’t go our way, we don’t really blink twice … We know when we play our style of volleyball, we’re right there with any team in the country, and I think you saw that tonight.”

After getting routed in the third set, the Buckeyes led the fourth set early, fell behind but fought back to regain the lead at 24-23 on a kill by Howard. But with Penn State on the ropes, Ohio State couldn’t deliver the knockout punch to force a fifth set.

A service error knotted the score at 24-24, then came Fisher’s clutch ace — the experience of a sixth-year senior coming through.

“It was a match that was punch and counterpunch,” Pavlik said. “I thought our passing and our serving came up big.”

Ohio State actually finished the match with 55 kills to Penn State’s 41, but Penn State committed four fewer service errors and only eight attack errors compared to Ohio State’s 24.

Shane Wetzel, Ohio State’s fab freshman opposite, finished with 20 kills on .484 hitting. He also had three block assists. Junior Jacob Pasteur had 16 kills but hit only .043. Redshirt junior setter Michael Wright finished with 40 assists and 10 digs.

The good news for Ohio State is the bulk of the roster returns.

“It, obviously, sucks,” Wetzel said, “but I think we took it to them, showed them who we are, and I think we’re ready to come back for next year. That’s what I’m focusing on now.”

So the Penn State farewell/revenge tour rolls on against a team that has a little revenge of its own as motivation.

On March 10 at Hawai’i’s Outrigger Invitational, in front of a partisan Rainbow Warriors crowd of more than 6,500, the Nittany Lions handed the home team its first loss of the season: 21-25, 25-23, 25-21, 25-23.

Fisher had 12 kills, three aces, three block assists and 10 digs, Bogner had 45 assists and Wildman had 11 kills.

Suffice it to say the Nittany Lions will need their big three to deliver one more encore if they hope to play for a national title.

“It’s going to be a dogfight, and I’m excited for it,” Fisher said.

Ohio State’s Justin Howard gets ready to attack the set from Michael Wright/NCAA photo


  1. Ohio State won the 2023 MIVA conference tournament and received an automatic bid. Long Beach and Grand Canyon are at-large teams.


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