For the men's volleyball team, games do not hold immense importance until April, when it plays in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Tournament for a chance at a spot in the NCAA Final Four.
The team's two games in the next two days are the early season's only rival for the late spring excitement. Tonight's game against Division III No. 1 Juniata (2-3) is a warmup for Friday's rematch against No. 9 Penn State (2-6). The Nittany Lions knocked Princeton out of the EIVA Tournament last year in the championship game, beating the Tigers 3-1.
"This will be a good week for us win or lose, because we are getting the work in early," head coach Glenn Nelson said.
As the Tigers play Juniata every year, the match should provide few surprises. Princeton soundly defeated the Eagles in their two meetings last year by scores of 3-1 and 3-0.
The talented underdogs, however, do have the potential to threaten the Tigers, because this is one of Juniata's marquee's matchups. Princeton was ranked 14th in the preseason volleyball poll and is highly regarded nationally. Even though the team fell out of the rankings after its two losses in California, Princeton is still a force among its East Coast opponents.
As Nelson describes it, "everybody is out to get us."
The Juniata game is the Tigers' first chance to apply the lessons from their sobering West Coast trip over intersession. The trip was a good training experience since Princeton played teams who are deeper into their own seasons, having had more practices and played more matches.
This year's western excursion provided the team with more material for improvement than usual. The Tigers defeated La Verne, 3-0, in the first game of the trip, before suffering their first regular season loss in 22 games, an embarrassing defeat to UC-Irvine.
Princeton, who had one of the highest hitting percentages in the country last year, hit a dismal .184 in that game. Nelson described it simply as "a really bad match."
The bitterness of the UC-Irvine pummeling was numbed by the occasionally exceptional performance against No. 4 Long Beach State. Princeton had opportunities to win the last two games but could not finish them out.
Although the trip illuminated the team's weaknesses – the inability to diagnose opponents' blocking strategies and an anemic offense – Nelson does not plan to implement any major changes for the upcoming games.
"Our offense was not happy (out West) and we need to work on seeing blocks," Nelson said. "In our practices we've been working on the offense."
Despite the problems, the starters remain the same, and the team will rely on its senior triumvirate of outside Jeff Cooper, middle Derek Devens and opposite Scott Birdwell to provide the offense. Nelson only plans to make substitutions if the team struggles like it did at UC-Irvine.
Although Nelson is optimistic for this week's games, he cautions that they are relatively insignificant.
"It is how you play in April that matters," he said.