Although the men's volleyball team's post-exam itinerary included a journey through laid-back California to open its season, Princeton could find no relaxation on the West Coast while facing some of its toughest competition of the year.
The Tigers (1-2 overall) opened against defending NCAA Division III champion La Verne (0-6) Jan. 24. The Tigers swept the Leopards in three games — 15-9, 15-6 and 16-14. The trip's fast start was short-lived, however, as Princeton dropped the following two matches.
After the victory over La Verne, the Tigers took on national powerhouse UC-Irvine (5-3, 1-2 Big West Conference). The Anteaters are ranked No. 15 in the most recent USA Today / American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. The Tigers lost the match in three straight games, coming no closer than the 17-16 final in the first. Princeton dropped the second by a count of 15-13 and the third by a lopsided score of 15-5.
Battling the best
"We played Irvine tough," sophomore outside Gary Chern said. "We could have beaten them."
The Anteaters dominated most of the action with middle Erick Helenihi recording 27 kills in the match. Four other Irvine players also had at least ten kills on the night.
After the loss at UC-Irvine, the Tigers looked to finish their West Coast swing with a win against California Baptist — the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics' top-ranked team. But the well-rounded Lancers proved too much for Princeton as the Tigers lost in three games — 15-7, 15-12 and 15-6 — before 650 Cal-Baptist fans.
A lack of intensity on the Tigers' part may well have been the difference.
"We were pretty lackadaisical in the last match," sophomore outside Andrew Hutchinson said. "We played well in the first two, but by the third it was like we just wanted to go home."
Despite returning to campus with a 1-2 record, there are several reasons for Princeton to feel confident going into the rest of the season.
"We played pretty tough out there," Hutchinson said of the trip. "We played even with Irvine."
The stereotype of California as a hotbed of volleyball talent is well deserved. The West Coast's teams are traditionally some of the best in the nation, often playing at a higher level than the best teams in the east, such as Penn State.
"Their all-around skills are better," Hutchinson said .
The sophomore middle's comment reflected a fundamental difference in the playing style used by the West Coast's teams. East Coast teams rely on height, rather than skill, to stay competitive. The Tigers play more like a California team in that respect, not depending on tall players to carry the team. For example, Princeton's offense is keyed by a setter who is shorter than six feet — senior Jason Morrow, who stands only five-feet, 11-inches.
This contrast between the Tigers and their Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association opponents could make a difference in Princeton's upcoming league schedule.
The Tigers begin their EIVA slate Friday against George Mason in Dillon Gymnasium.