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The team lifts the EIVA trophy after winning the championship. Photo Credit: GoPrincetonTigers

The 2019 season brought Princeton’s men’s volleyball team (17–12, 13–1 EIVA) a total of 1202 kills, 170 service aces, 674 digs, 1122 assists, 209 blocks, and a total of 2286 points, and they aren’t done yet. The Tigers hosted the 2019 EIVA championship tournament this past weekend, with George Mason (17–9, 10–4), Penn State (15–15, 10–4), and Saint Francis (15–14, 9–5) in attendance.

Princeton was the No. 1 ranked team in the tournament and faced Saint Francis, the No. 4 ranked team, on Thursday in the semifinals. The Thursday evening game was a quick win for Princeton, who beat Saint Francis 3–0 (25–23, 25–21, 25–19), advancing the Tigers to their second straight EIVA championship game.

Throughout the course of the three sets played between the Tigers and the Red Flash, Saint Francis continually started out strong and with the lead, forcing the Tigers to come back to win it all.

Senior Kendall Ratter led the team with 11 kills and four aces with junior George Huhmann following with eight. Sophomore Joe Kelly had 27 assists.

“I’m pleased with the guys’ resilience. I thought we started off shaky as Saint Francis came out on fire, but we responded well in the first set and battled back,” head coach Sam Shweisky said postgame.

Resilience is exactly the word that junior Parker Dixon said described this season the best.

“A lot of times this year we were down and had to fight back, and our team never gave up,” said Dixon.

Saturday night brought a thrilling five set match (28–26, 22–25, 25–18, 20–25, 15–13) between Princeton and the Penn State Nittany Lions that gave the Tigers their first EIVA championship since 1998.

The first set was a preview for the excitement that was to come for the rest of the match as the Tigers defeated the Nittany Lions 28–26. Penn State was up 23–24 with set point in their hands before head coach Sam Shweisky called a timeout. After the time out, the set continued to be back and forth ties before Dixon and junior Greg Luck had back to back kills for the win.

The second set was a battle for the lead with neither team holding an advantage of more than two points until a Tiger attack error gave the Nittany Lions a 19–22 advantage. The Tigers fought for the comeback but a service error at set point gave Penn State the win, making the match a 1–1 tie.

Set three was hard fought for the first 25 points, giving the Tigers only a 13–12 advantage before they went on a 8-of-12 run to jump ahead 21–16 after a massive double block by senior Billy Andrew and Luck that lead to a Penn State timeout. After the timeout, Penn State tried to fight back but a service error put Princeton up 24–18 and Luck’s serve gave the Tigers the third set win.

With the chance to win it all in the fourth, the Tigers were beaten by their own service errors. After three straight Princeton service errors, Penn State carried a 3–5  lead. With the Tigers having the championship in mind, they came back to a 19–23 deficit, forcing a Penn State timeout. A Princeton service error and Penn State kill extended play to a fifth set.

Despite being down, the Tigers continued to cheer for their teammates after every point and every action.

“Our team’s philosophy is to cheer after every point, no matter what happens, and it serves a couple of purposes. It helps us not get down on ourselves after a bad play, and it also takes away some of the momentum of the other team if they do something good. A lot of times the other team looks confused when we are celebrating after they win a point, and anything we can do to get even the smallest bit of momentum is helpful,” Dixon explained.

The fifth and final set was just a thrilling as the rest of the game for both Princeton and Penn State fans. The set was consistently back and forth and was tied much of the time. A Huhmann kill put the Tigers up 3–2 until Penn State took their first lead at 5–6. A Dixon and Huhmann double block put the Tigers up 8–7 before they went on a run, with another block putting them at 11–9. A timeout from Penn State after the score had reached 13–11 brought a ton of excitement from inside Dillon Gym. A massive service ace from Ratter gave the Tigers set point.

“The final couple points I was just trying to focus on finishing the job. I was thinking about what could happen when we won, and I just focused on making that happen, without celebrating too early. Volleyball is a game that can change point by point, and it was important for us to keep our focus through the final point, which we did,” Dixon said.

The final point was a kill from none other than EIVA Player of the Year and EIVA Tournament MVP, George Huhmann, to give the Tigers their first EIVA Championship since 1998.

“The accolades are great, but volleyball is a team sport and I wouldn’t have been able to have the success I’ve had without my teammates,“ Huhmann said. “I’m grateful to have received Player of the Year, but I’m always focused on getting better and looking forward to NCAAs.”

Huhmann finished with 25 kills and six blocks, while Dixon had 15 kills. Ratter contributed eight kills and Luck added seven. Kelly had 51 assists during the five sets and senior Corry Short had seven digs in his last Dillon Gym appearance.

“I looked into the stands late in the fifth set and saw alumni, family and friends giving their wholehearted support for this team, and in that moment, I was immensely proud to wear Princeton on my jersey,” Short, the captain of this Princeton volleyball team, explained. “This team and the Princeton Volleyball program as a whole has been constantly refining itself over the last decade into becoming what it is today. This victory is the culmination of years of hard work and dedication, as well as the foundation built by the Princeton Volleyball players that have come before me, and I could not be more proud of this team.”

For the seniors, this championship season has been running through their minds for four years.

“In the time I've been here, we've always talked about the ’98 team winning the conference and making it to the final four like some sort of legend. It's a pretty cool feeling to be up there with them now. It is absolutely something I will never forget,” Andrew said.

Billy Andrew took time off between his junior and senior years so coming back and being able to play with this team was, as he describes, unbelievable.

When asked about his favorite moment this season, he said, “ I would have to say our five-set loss to Cal State University Northridge earlier in the season. It was only my third match after rejoining the team after the first semester had finished and I was really excited to be back out on the court with everyone.”

“But I just remember realizing after the game that our team was pretty good, that we had a real shot to do something special this season. I think in my mind that's when I knew that we would do something that no Princeton Volleyball team had done in 21 years … So the CSUN match was where it initially all clicked for me that this season was going to be one to remember,” Andrew said.

Saturday, April 20, was historic for the Tigers. Not because they hadn’t won before, but because this was the first time they had won the championship in Dillon Gym.

“Winning this EIVA Championship on our home court — something that no other Princeton team has ever done — has been my favorite memory of my four years as a member of Princeton Volleyball, let alone this season,” Short said, reflecting on his time as a Tiger.

If Corry Short could describe this season in one word, it would be incredible.

Princeton will travel to Wilson, N.C. on Thursday, April 25, to take on Barton College for the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

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