Thursday, January 27

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Men's volleyball struggles against western foes, drops two of three

LOS ANGELES – For a trip that is usually a whirlwind of victory, family time and carousal, last week's installment of the annual men's volleyball trip to California simply flew by.

The Tigers had hoped to get in some solid games before facing eastern foes, but as it turned out, their ratio of time spent on the court to that spent in the hot tub hit an all-time low.

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Playing the minimum nine games in three matches, No. 17 Princeton (1-2 overall) won the customary garbage match at La Verne last Monday, then fell in three games apiece to a surging No. 18 UC-Irvine and to the Tigers' West Coast nemesis, No. 4 Long Beach St.

For Princeton, the trip was a chance to gauge how this team – which has gained five freshmen to replace a remarkably mature class of '97 – would react on the court.

Fresh start

"This is a new team," head coach Glenn Nelson said. "We're starting to find our identity."

Jan. 26, the Leopards, who are winless in lifetime play against the Tigers, once again shot an airball, 15-6, 15-6, 15-13.

In his college debut, freshman outside Steve Cooper demonstrated that he can often pass nails and bring some heat on the left side, but he still has to adjust to "the difference between high school and big-time collegiate volleyball," according to Nelson.

Meanwhile, as expected, the Tigers' senior offensive trio – outside Jeff Cooper, middle Derek Devens and opposite Scott Birdwell – hammered for 17, 12 and nine kills, respectively.

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At UCI, sophomore setter Jason Morrow opened the match with a missed serve, Steve Cooper followed with an overpass and the Tigers' play deteriorated from there, 15-3, 15-7, 15-4.

Not like a champion

Lacking consistent passing and defensive tenacity, the Tigers, whose total of five losses in the past two years have rendered them quite unaccustomed to losing, did not play at all like a nationally ranked team.

Hitting .381, only Devens showed any signs of competence. All other Tiger hitters fell victim to the Anteater block, and Morrow's setting was erratic and unbalanced. Princeton hit .184 to Irvine's .542 and committed 29 errors.

Tuesday's performance did not set a positive precedent for a long-sought win over undefeated Long Beach, nevertheless the Tigers showed some flashes of brilliance during the 15-4, 15-13, 15-12 loss Jan. 29, before a crowd of parents and an entire team's worth of volleyball alumni.

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After a forgettable first game, freshman middle Ryan Black replaced struggling senior Dan Brandt and contributed some strong play at the net while the remaining starters picked up their play considerably.

Cooper and Cooper found a nice passing groove against the 49ers' big jump serves, and the Tiger defense began to challenge the blistering Long Beach attack.

The resurrected Tigers jumped out to leads of 12-6 and 10-3 in the second and third games, respectively, but Long Beach's composure and experience, coupled with untimely Tiger service errors, prevented Princeton from pushing to 15.

"We have a lot of maturing to do," Jeff Cooper said.

On an off-night for Birdwell, only Devens and Jeff Cooper emerged as offensive weapons. Jeff Cooper put away a match-high 18 kills, but even so, he felt that the Tigers never "had any one player to make the huge play."

Though disappointment over the Irvine match lingers, Nelson said, "We played a respectable match against the No. 4 team in the country."

The Tigers will travel to Juniata Thursday and then to primary eastern foe No. 8 Penn St. Friday for their first regular-season meeting in five years. (Josh Stephens '97 is a former 'Prince' sports writer.)

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