In a week of Princeton upsets, men’s volleyball (10–10 overall, 4–2 EIVA) became the latest victorious Tiger underdog, defeating George Mason Patriots (9–12, 1–4 EIVA) and No. 8 Loyola Chicago Ramblers (19–4, 9–1 MIVA) in back-to-back four-setters this weekend.
In a continuation of their persistent efforts earlier this season, sophomore right-side hitter Nyherowo Omene and junior outside hitter Ben Harrington led Friday night’s match against George Mason with 12 kills each. Omene and Harrington charged alongside sophomore setter Henry Wedbush, who led the match with 40 assists.
The tight opening of the match featured a long set of point-by-point battles, with both teams failing to establish any significant early leads. Strong offensive fronts from first-year outside hitter Ryan Vena allowed Princeton to keep up with an equally-potent George Mason offense. It was Omene’s sharp service game that took center stage to finally grow the Tigers’ lead, putting Princeton up 21–16. As the Patriots produced a few unforced errors, the Tigers snatched the first set, 25–20.
In an equally-arduous second set, the Tigers struggled to parallel the assertiveness they showed in the opening frame. A shaky front from Princeton resulted in numerous unforced errors, and an inconsistent service game gifted the Patriots a lead, and eventually, the equalizing second set.
But the Tigers refused to present the Patriots with any more leverage as rapid kills from Harrington allowed Princeton to bounce back confidently in the third and fourth sets. As the Patriots became hesitant in their plays, there was a massive change in momentum, with George Mason on the short end of the deal. With the third set going to the Tigers by a score of 25–20, senior outside hitter Alexander Mrkalj helped seal the match in the decisive fourth set, 25–17.
The Tigers entered Saturday’s matchup against then No. 9 Loyola Chicago with confidence from the previous night’s win and, as head coach Sam Shweisky told The Daily Princetonian, were “fired up to play a top-10 opponent.”
Harrington laid it all out on the court, leading the Tigers in kills once again. Against Loyola Chicago, he showcased his service talents as well, leading the Tigers with five aces.
A tight first set demonstrated that Loyola Chicago was not going to have an easy night despite their high ranking. In another point-by-point affair, the Tigers established themselves as worthy opponents as Harrington hit kills to catch up to Loyola at 22–22. Further, back-and-forth plays equalized the teams 25–25, with Mrkalj producing a beautiful kill to put the Tigers up 26–25. A few points later, though, grasping momentum by a thin thread, the Ramblers snatched the opener at 30–28.
Princeton rallied back despite the disappointing first set slip-up, jumping out to a 10–3 lead in the second set. In his debut, first-year Owen Mellon showed no nerves as he racked up a couple of dominant kills.
“[Mellon] help[ed] propel us to an exciting victory,” Shweisky said. “It was so awesome to see Owen come in and do so well after all the hard work he has been putting in.”
Harrington’s service game was on full display in the second set, and his back-to-back aces, alongside offensive efforts from the entire team, allowed Princeton to take the second set, 25–16.
Riding high from the commanding second set, the Tigers once again took an early lead in the third set as the Ramblers were pushed into a defensive position. Despite what looked to be a shaky service game from Loyola, they eventually recovered to secure an equal 22–22 position. Then, Harrington, putting an end to Loyola’s streak, gave the Tigers the third set and a 2–1 set edge.
The beginning of the fourth set foreshadowed a potential fifth, with the Ramblers taking the early lead at 10–7. In line with the rest of the match, point-by-point struggles were played out, allowing Princeton to catch up to Loyola, eventually resulting in a tense 24–24 score. This continued until both teams had 29 points on the scoreboard, neither team willing to yield the set. It was Harrington, yet again, who managed to take control of the Tigers’ offense to take the set and the match for Princeton at 31–29.
Following the top-10 win, the Tigers return to their conference play against George Mason, where the Patriots look for revenge next Saturday, April 1, at Dillon Gymnasium.
Kenzy Elshazly is a contributor to the Sports Section at the ‘Prince.’
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