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After years atop standings, the EIVA has caught up with Penn State

Penn State coach Mark Pavlik
Penn State coach Mark Pavlik

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Not long ago, when Penn State coach Mark Pavlik was on the recruiting trail, he would be attending club tournaments or Junior Olympic events and see many of his fellow college coaches.

Very few of them, however, were from the EIVA. It helped give Pavlik an easier recruiting pitch to athletes who wanted to play the sport in the east.

In recent years, however, the scene has changed. All eight members of the EIVA have representatives at the big events, and the talent that used to be much more concentrated in the Nittany Lions’ Rec Hall gym is dispersed around the northeast.

“It’s tougher,” Pavlik said. “It’s something our guys have to understand – it’s a new dawn. Nobody’s rolling over. Every team has big boys that can hit the ball hard.”

Pavlik met with State College-area media earlier in the week to preview his team’s season – the Nittany Lions host North Greenville on Saturday, Jan. 12, for their home opener – but he and his team were facing circumstances quite different from even just a few seasons ago. Penn State is no long a shoo-in to win the league as it had for 17 straight seasons, is no longer walking into some gyms with a victory all but a lock before the first serve, and ended last year without an AVCA All-American while two other EIVA programs – Princeton and George Mason – did.

The new scene was evidenced by the preseason poll of the EIVA’s coaches, with Penn State, George Mason and Princeton all earning first-place votes. The Patriots won the EIVA’s regular-season title last season and Harvard won the tournament for the National Championship tournament berth.

“I think the fact that there is no clear favorite to win the EIVA this year, means that everyone has improved their rosters, and teams have stepped up their recruiting game to make it tougher to have a clear winner,” Patriots coach Jay Hosack said last month as his team was preparing to defend its title. “I look forward to continuing that trend with everyone else in the conference, and this year will be a dogfight to get back in the playoffs again.”

As a member of the conference’s executive committee and as someone who has been encouraging other coaches and programs for years, Pavlik thinks the progress has been uplifting.

“I’m so very proud of this league,” he said. “I’m so very proud of the young coaches that we have right now, what they’re trying to do, and the idea, I think, that’s going through most of (their minds) anymore is not, ‘We’ve got to beat Penn State,’ but ‘We want to win a national championship.’ We’re not there as a league, but we’re getting much, much closer than we’ve ever been.”

Pavlik said one of the keys for the other programs is not just finding a couple standout players, but also building the foundation, getting quality depth and better competition in the practice gym. That helps hone the skills of everyone, and the Nittany Lions are no longer thinking they can just outlast opponents knowing there would eventually be a mistake or free ball they can out away for a point.

That's not to say Penn State was coasting or didn’t have top-end talent, because the Nittany Lions can claim something no other men’s program in the nation can: At the 2016 Olympics, three of the six U.S. front-row starters for most matches in Brazil were Penn State products, and all three have a chance to be on the roster again if the U.S. makes the field for Tokyo in 2020. One of those former Lions, Matt Anderson, was just named Team USA’s Player of the Year for a fifth time Thursday.

Pavlik also pointed out this season is the first in which all eight programs have full-time head coaches.

“That speaks volumes about how athletic departments are viewing men’s volleyball,” Pavlik said. “In the past that wasn’t the case. Part-time guys had to work to make sure they could feed their families.”

The National Federation of State High School Associations released a study in late 2018 on the state of high school sports participation. Volleyball was the second-fastest growing sport for boys in the nation – behind fencing – rising 21.1 percent over the last five years. Several states have added or are considering adding boys’ volleyball as a sanctioned varsity sport, and the NCAA’s move to add Division III level also has given an assist, with more than 100 programs playing now at that level versus fewer than 50 less than a decade ago. There also has been a commitment around the nation to grow the game, to change the notion that it’s just a girls’ sport, and bring it more attention.

During Pavlik’s session with the media, a reporter from a local television station who was fairly new to the area asked Pavlik what he would tell someone who was unfamiliar with his team about the sport.

“Please come out and watch,” Pavlik said. “Ask a lot of questions. The men’s game is different from the women’s game. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, just different. That difference can really suck in a lot of people that don’t know anything about Penn State volleyball.”

Fans will see a sport and a league growing and improving.