The Princeton men’s volleyball team (5–12 overall, 4–6 Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association) battled hard against No. 2 Penn State (16–3, 9–0 EIVA) on Friday, March 18. After four very close sets in front of a packed house at Dillon Gymnasium, the Tigers came up short, while the Nittany Lions kept their perfect conference record alive with a 3–1 victory (25–16, 25–23, 23–25, 25–21).
The first set started out with the two teams trading points as a kill by senior setter Joe Kelly tied the score at eight apiece. However, a 5–0 and a later 4–0 run from Penn State put the set win out of reach for the Tigers as the scoreboard suddenly read 20–10.
In a show of grit, Princeton continued to fight despite the large deficit. A double block by first-year right side Nyherowo Omene and sophomore outside hitter Ben Harrington fired up the squad, leading to a run of their own. The Nittany Lions managed to quell this late surge by the Tigers to take a 25–16 win.
Penn State continued their momentum and got out to a quick 5–1 lead in the second set. Unfazed, the Tigers slowly crawled back and tied the score at 11, courtesy of kills by Harrington, sophomore middle blocker Gavin Leising, and junior outside hitter Alexander Mrkalj.
After a kill by Harrington, the Tigers saw their first lead of the set at 15–14, but the Lions did not falter and managed to even the score at 22. After some more intense back and forth play, the Tigers found themselves down 24–23 with another chance for a tie, but dropped the set after a service error.
Looking to bounce back after their mistake in set three, the Tigers took an early lead. Consecutive kills by Leising put them ahead 3–2. With high energy from the bench fueling the team’s fiery play, Princeton continued to hold onto their lead through much of the set. Although Penn State tied the set at 17-all, the Tigers were able to hold on and close out. A rocket from junior outside hitter Nate Thompson secured the 25–23 win for Princeton.
The fourth set saw another back and forth battle by both teams, as a 5–0 Penn State run and 3–0 Princeton run resulted in an 11-all score. The Lions began to take control, gaining an 18–14 advantage late in the set. Once again, the Tigers showed their resilience, fighting back to cut the deficit to one at 21–20. Ultimately, Penn State was too much to handle, winning the final set 25–21 to take the match.
In this match, Harrington continued his stellar play, leading the team with 17 kills. Leising and Kelly also had great performances, tallying four blocks and 34 assists, respectively. According to Kelly, the team chemistry and encouraging words from the sidelines have been key in games.
“Our bench has been amazing. It’s been a staple of our team that no matter how the game is going, the energy is always going to be positive,” he said to The Daily Princetonian after the game. “We definitely do a great job of lifting each other up.”
While the emotional support system within the team has helped the Tigers stay focused, Kelly also noted how they have been working to build on their technical skills. Looking ahead to the remainder of the season, the Tigers are working hard to maintain their focused mindset and resilient play.
“We have been taking small steps everyday in practice with the focus on one day at a time, trying to get better in small skills and seeing how much we can improve in our ability to stay locked in during a four or five set game,” he said.
Their efforts have been successful, evident by a 3–0 win against Saint Francis University (Pa.) (12–8, 6–4) on Saturday, March 19. The two teams had met earlier in the season, where the Tigers lost 3–1 in a four-match game.
Next up, the Tigers will take on Saint Francis College (Brooklyn) in another conference game on Wednesday, March 23 in Dillon gymnasium.
Eric Lee is a senior writer for the Sports section at the ‘Prince’. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on instagram @airic.lee.