PRINCETON, N.J. - Volleyball is a game of moments and momentum.
One often creates the other.
The Princeton men’s volleyball team has had its moments. It has had its momentum. It has had both this season, and it has had both in the history of this tournament.
And, with a quiet confidence that may not often be associated with the league’s fourth seed, Princeton will head to the EIVA Championships with a real chance to create both this weekend.
Princeton will enter the 2013 EIVA Championships as the fourth seed in a four-team field that was all but decided around St. Patrick’s Day. The first-round matchups may not have been set until last weekend, but it would have been a stunner to see anybody but Penn State, Princeton, George Mason and Harvard battling for the title.
Of the four teams, Princeton had the least amount of late-season success. A 3-2 loss at Harvard and a home loss to George Mason last Saturday dropped the Tigers to the fourth seed and a semifinal date with Penn State. That match will be played at 7:30 Thursday night, following the opening semifinal between second-seeded George Mason and third-seeded Harvard.
You know what the fourth seed has meant in the EIVA playoffs since 2000? Three sets at Penn State and a bus ride home.
Princeton, however, isn’t the typical fourth seed in this tournament. And that would have held true if the fourth seed went to Mason or Harvard. This just isn’t the standard EIVA postseason, when anything short of a Penn State win would have been a monumental upset.
Penn State is the top seed and is the only team currently ranked in the AVCA Top 15, but its three league peers have their own share of national credentials. Both George Mason and Harvard have been ranked inside the Top 15 this season, and Princeton got as high as 16th before a three-week injury to two-time All-EIVA honoree Cody Kessel left the team shorthanded prior to a home-and-home set with MIVA frontrunner Lewis.
As for non-league wins, you can argue that Princeton has the best one of the four. After all, nobody in the EIVA owns a win over a Top-6 team in the latest national poll, and Princeton opened its 2013 season with a 3-1 win over UC Santa Barbara, currently the nation’s seventh-ranked team.
The winner of the EIVA Championships this weekend will likely be the fourth seed at the NCAA Championships next week at UCLA, but it feels like the tightest pack in the league since the turn of the century.
Penn State and Princeton have been going at it on the volleyball court long before the Tiger men’s volleyball team became an official varsity program in 1997.
While Sam Shweisky has led Princeton through four memorable matches in this series over the last four years (more on that later), the man who guided Princeton through the majority of that series will be back in State College this weekend.
Glenn Nelson, the winningest coach in the history of Princeton Athletics, will be inducted into the EIVA Hall of Fame during Saturday’s championship session. Nelson, the first coach in collegiate history to take both a men’s and women’s team to the NCAA Championships in the same academic year, led Princeton Volleyball to more than 1,000 victories.
One of his most memorable came in the 1998 EIVA semifinal. Third-seeded Princeton defeated second-seeded Penn State 15-7, 15-13, 16-14 to advance to the EIVA championship, which it would win over host Rutgers-Newark. That would be the only time that Princeton men’s volleyball has reached the NCAA Championships.
It also stands as the last time Penn State hasn’t been there.
Since 1999, Penn State is 35-0 in the EIVA Championships, with every one of the matches being held at State College. The Nittany Lions have won 105 of 115 individual sets played, and they have never trailed a match beyond the first set since the 1999 final.
Penn State has lost only two semifinal sets in its last 13 appearances, an incredible 39-2 edge against its overmatched competition. It has never lost the first set in that stretch. The last time the Nittany Lions lost the first set of a semifinal was 1998.
Back to those four Princeton-Penn State matches over the last four seasons that could have some impact in this match.
The first came in the 2010 EIVA championship match, when a Princeton team led by upstart freshmen Michael Dye and Pat Schwagler pushed Penn State for two thrilling sets before finally falling 3-0.
Then came the wild 3-2 Penn State win at Dillon Gym last season, when Princeton held eight match balls in a crazy 37-35 fourth set. This was easily the closest any Tiger team has come to a Penn State win since the ’98 semifinal. Kessel, en route to earning the EIVA Newcomer of the Year honor, had 25 kills in the win, while Dye, Princeton’s current senior captain, had 15 kills and six blocks.
The first meeting this season was a close 3-1 Penn State victory in State College, though there were positives to take from that match as well. It was the first time Princeton took a set off Penn State on the road since (you guessed it) 1998, and it was a match when the outside combination of Schwagler and freshman Devin Stearns combined for 25 kills.
Then there was the night when more than 900 people packed themselves in Dillon Gym for the rematch. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it was a tale of two matches; Princeton won the first portion, leading 1-0 and 17-12 in the second set.
Then came a moment, perhaps when the enormity of the opportunity hit the home team, and momentum, which rolled the way of the 14-time reigning EIVA champion. Penn State rallied in the second and controlled play in the final two sets for another 3-1 victory.
It was a disappointing conclusion for the team clad in orange jerseys. But it was also a second night this season — a fourth time in four seasons — when Princeton went toe-to-toe with the perennial power in Eastern volleyball.
It wanted a third chance. It preferred the EIVA final. But maybe the semifinal makes more sense.
How fitting would it be to return the championship match on the 15th anniversary of its only EIVA title? How memorable would it be to play for one of four tickets to the NCAA Championships with Hall of Famer Glenn Nelson in the building? How special would it be to bookend Penn State’s 14-year reign with yet another semifinal stunner?
All of this is grand fodder for a magical tale, but this is non-fiction. If Princeton were to rely on ghosts and good karma Thursday night, it will experience the whole three-sets-and-a-bus night that every other semifinalist has since the end of the Clinton administration.
Instead Princeton will rely on talent, experience and fight.
The term “puncher’s chance” fits boxing far better than volleyball, but Princeton can swing with the heavyweights in the sport. Both Schwagler and Kessel earned first-team All-EIVA honors, while Dye returned to the all-league team for a second time. Each of the three has shown the ability to take over a match in the biggest of moments — remember, Dye was an all-tournament selection as a freshman — and each has played in this tournament already.
Princeton could start six players with EIVA postseason experience, a number Penn State won’t match Thursday night. The Tigers’ lone freshman, Stearns, is coming off his best match in weeks last Saturday against Mason.
As for the fight, that has been there all season. A team that thrives as an underdog can fully reclaim the role Thursday night. It can swing away against a host school that has all the pressure of a program that hasn’t lost a semifinal since the infancy of the internet.
Maybe more than any fourth seed in the recent history of this tournament, Princeton has the ability to create a moment Thursday night. It has the chance to own the momentum. It has the talent to be there Saturday night.
Welcome to the 2013 EIVA Championships. It should be a wild ride.
Story courtesy of Princeton