With playoff aspirations on the line, the Princeton men’s volleyball team (10-10, 5-4 Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association) will welcome No. 7 Penn State (15-9, 9-0) and Saint Francis University (6-17, 4-5) to Dillon Gymnasium at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights for a critical home swing — the last of 2015 for the Tigers.
With Penn State already having clinched the EIVA outright, the rest of the league is battling for second place. While Princeton currently has the inside track, Harvard, George Mason and St. Francis remain in the hunt. The top four squads in the seven-team field will advance to the conference semi-finals, making this weekend’s events crucial in developing the playoff picture. Though it seems likely that the Tigers can advance to the postseason for the fourth consecutive year, finishing in second or third would guarantee avoiding Penn State until a potential championship matchup. This prospect is all-the-more appealing considering that the Nittany Lions have ended Princeton’s season for the past three years.
In its first battle this season, Penn State bested Princeton in straight sets (25-19, 25-21, 25-23), despite a strong performance from senior star Cody Kessel. Perhaps more present in the minds of both teams, though, are two of the three meetings between the schools from 2014. At home last spring, the Tigers ended a 35-match losing streak to the perennial powerhouse team from State College, Pa., sending a packed Dillon Gym into hysterics and marking the program’s most monumental victory since perhaps winning the 1998 EIVA championship. In the finals of the EIVA tournament, though, the Nittany Lions held strong and fought off another Princeton upset effort to get revenge and clinch the league title and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
After early season struggles against strong competition that included a six-game losing streak, Penn State will enter Dillon Gym in top form, winners of 11 straight matches. Princeton, on the other hand, has struggled of late, dropping five of its last seven games. However, the Tigers found their groove last Tuesday, beating Kean in straight sets (25-20, 25-21, 25-21) to give the team some momentum heading into Friday night’s battle.
While Friday’s ledger is the weekend’s marquee matchup, Saturday’s duel against EIVA foe St. Francis is equally crucial for the Tigers in terms of playoff positioning, as a win over the Red Flash would clinch a postseason spot for the Tigers. The Orange and Black won 32-30, 25-16, 25-22 in the first meeting between the teams this season.Junior Devin Stearns played a prominent role in that victory, leading his team with 11 kills. The Red Flash are searching for its first victory over Princeton since March 31, 2012.
This weekend’s games will carry even more weight than usual — not only because of the name on the uniform of the opposition or the playoff race at stake, but because it will be the last home matches in Princeton uniform for seniors Kessel, Will Siroky, Conor Dube and Tony Ensbury. While these four seniors have already established a legacy that will survive their graduation, they will be looking to add a few more highlights this weekend.