Oh, how sweet it is. Redemption at last.
"The difference was all around the world," senior opposite Scott Birdwell said.
Indeed, the team that showed up at Dillon Gym Friday night to take on 13th-ranked Penn State (14-14 overall, 4-1 Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association-Tait Division) was markedly different from the one that faced Penn State Feb. 6, when Princeton lost three games to one.
In fact, it was worlds different.
The Tigers (11-7, 4-1 EIVA-Hay) pulled out all the stops as they mowed down the Nittany Lions in three straight games – 15-13, 15-13, 16-14. Friday's win marked the first-ever victory by Princeton volleyball over Penn State.
Princeton played its best volleyball of the season and seems to be approaching its full potential just as the playoffs are approaching.
The Tigers' blocking and digging, down from last season, was nearly flawless Friday night.
"Once we started blocking, our digging increased," senior middle Derek Devens said. "They had to hit at different areas of the court and didn't put balls away every time, which fed back into our blocking."
Penn State spent much of the match scrambling and disoriented as Princeton befuddled it point after point and allowed the raucous crowd to rattle its concentration.
The entire match was marked by the rising frustration of the Penn State players. That frustration reached a boiling point in the third game when Penn State's junior middle Brad Miller, who tallied a career-high in kills the last time these teams squared off, received a yellow card.
Devens keyed Princeton in all areas of the match. He hammered down 16 kills without an error en route to hitting .762 on the night. Devens also added nine digs in what was his best overall performance of the season.
Slow but steady
The match started off slowly for the Tigers, in what has become something of a trademark. Princeton allowed Penn State to score seven unanswered points before beginning to capitalize on opportunities. The Tigers powered back to tie the score at eight, by siding out and playing solid defense.
The teams traded points, and were tied at 13 before Princeton closed out the final two points to take the game.
The second game was close from start to finish, the largest point differentials coming with Princeton down 5-2 and 7-4. The two teams matched each other almost point for point, arriving at another 13-13 tie.
With the Tigers up 14-13, Penn State called timeout and promptly sided out. Princeton returned the favor on the very next play, putting the ball in Birdwell's hands. The game ended, appropriately, on a perfect pass from sophomore setter Jason Morrow to Birdwell, who set it to senior outside Jeff Cooper for the kill.
Princeton withstood a desperate stand in the third game by Penn State, who rallied back to take a 14-12 lead after trailing 11-5. The Tigers did not fold as they have in past matches, taking control when the game went down to the wire.
This win should prove to boost the Tigers' confidence as they head into the EIVA playoffs, a tournament that is up for grabs.
"We've been waiting all season to play like this," Morrow said.
"We proved to ourselves that we can beat some of the teams we've been losing to," Devens said.
Princeton repeated its newfound ability to finish out close games with a match that went the distance against the New Jersey Institute of Technology (14-6 overall, 5-1 EIVA-Tait) Saturday at Dillon Gym. The Tigers prevailed in a five-game nail-biter – 14-16, 15-7, 15-5, 16-17, 15-6.
After losing a close first game where the breaks went the wrong way, Princeton took control in two blowout wins to go up two games to one. The Tigers essentially put on a volleyball clinic, holding NJIT to a total of 12 points.
Princeton held tough in the fourth game, but the Highlanders staved off elimination with a 17-16 win.
But the fifth and final game was all Princeton. After tying the game at three, the Tigers dominated, allowing NJIT to score just three more points the rest of the way.
It was Princeton's first five-game match of the season, and it came at a most opportune time with the playoffs right around the corner. The Tigers gained valuable experience from playing a physical opponent in a grueling match that lasted over two hours.