For head men's volleyball coach Glenn Nelson, it is not how much other teams respect the Tigers, but how much they fear Princeton. The Tigers have earned the respect, and are now working on the fear.
After a year in which Nelson's team went 24-2, lost only 14 games out of 88, advanced to the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Associa-tion finals and finished the season ranked 15th in the nation, Princeton has set its sights even higher.
"Our goal is to go to the Final Four," senior opposite Scott Birdwell said. "We expect to beat almost everyone we play."
Reaching the NCAA Final Four for the first time ever will not be easy, even though this year's team looks to be even stronger than last year's. Princeton faces a much tougher schedule this year than last, with two matches against Penn State, ranked second last year.
The Tigers graduated three key players, and much of the team's success will hinge on how their replacements fare. Senior outside Jeff Cooper moves into a regular starting role with the departure of Jon Wimbish '97 and senior middle Dan Brandt will fill in for Dan Eggers '97.
The biggest factor will be the play of freshman outside Steve Cooper (no relation to Jeff), who replaces Joe McCarthy '97.
"His season will determine how well we do," Birdwell said.
"There is a lot of pressure on Steve," Nelson agreed. "He will basically get served every ball."
Steve Cooper's strengths are at the net, where he will block more balls than his predecessors. The Tigers' improved blocking and hitting should be enough to offset the defensive and passing losses of McCarthy and Wimbish.
"Everyone will have to play a little bit better," sophomore setter Jason Morrow said. "With our bigger size, we'll be blocking more balls and will hopefully have less court to cover on defense."
Princeton will look for Morrow to duplicate his stellar performance of last year. Although Nelson called him "unimposing physically," Morrow is the most crucial part of the Tigers' offense.
"Morrow is quick, smart and adept at running the offense," Nelson said. "He is such a good setter that he can get us a swing at any ball. In practice, when we put Morrow on the second team, it can beat the first team in scrimmage."
Nelson looks for big things out of this year's seniors – Birdwell, Brandt, Jeff Cooper and middle Derek Devens, who led the nation in hitting percentage last year and was critical to the Tigers' success.
"They are a steady group," Nelson said. "They go about their business and get the job done."
If Princeton can pass the ball like it did last year and avoid giving up cheap points, then Hawaii, the site of this year's Final Four, could be added to the team's itinerary. The Tigers play very well as a team, with a strong mental game that levels the playing field against teams that are better athletes.
"We're not going to crumble," Birdwell said. "We can break them down before they break us down and rally with any team."
Princeton's three opponents on an intersession trip to California – La Verne, UC-Irvine and Long Beach State – will set up their momentum for important matches against Juniata and Penn State during the first week of February.
"We're in good shape," Birdwell said. "We expect to go 3-0 in California."