There was a quiet confidence around this team in the preseason, a belief that it had the chance to become something special in 2013. While the end goal is still a long way away, Princeton made its opening statement count Tuesday night with a 3-1 win over 12th-ranked UC Santa Barbara.
The Tiger men's volleyball team won its first season-opening match since 2001 with a 29-27, 25-20, 22-25, 25-23 win over the Gauchos. A match that seemed destined for a fifth set when UC Santa Barbara built a 16-11 lead in the fourth set turned quickly, and Princeton rode a late run to capture a confidence-building win.
This was Princeton's first win over a ranked opponent since March 1, 2008, when the Tigers defeated 11th-ranked George Mason 3-1 at home. It was also its first season-opening win in 12 tries; the last team Princeton had defeated in its opening match was LaVerne, which no longer has a men's volleyball team.
So this may have been a little unexpected for everybody else, but not for an experienced Princeton team led by senior co-captain Michael Dye.
"It may not come across in the stats, but Mike's serving carried us in some key spots tonight," head coach Sam Shweisky said afterwards. "It was also great to see Pat back on the court, killing 19 balls and hitting .500. Overall, it was just exciting to see the way we went out and competed tonight."
Schwagler and sophomore Cody Kessel, Princeton's former EIVA Newcomers of the Year, combined for 33 of Princeton's 61 kills. However, it was an actual newcomer who made a huge difference early. Freshman Devin Stearns, who ended the match with 14 kills, put away balls on three consecutive set points against his side in the opener, a set Princeton finished 29-27 on a Kessel kill.
After a 25-20 win in the second, UC Santa Barbara bounced back to win the third and race out to a 16-11 lead in the fourth. A service error gave Dye the serve, and Princeton would run off the next four points to even the set. A block by Dye and Kessel earned Princeton a match ball, and Stearns finished the match with a kill for a 25-23 win.
In his debut as the starting setter, junior Davis Waddell recorded 47 assists and helped Princeton hit .285, including an impressive .478 mark in the second set. Sophomore Tony Ensbury, who played for the U.S. Junior National team last summer, led Princeton with 12 digs, while classmates Kessel and Will Siroky had seven blocks apiece.
Princeton will finish its season-opening California trip Wednesday night at 5 pm PST against the 13th-ranked Toreros of UC-San Diego. UC San Diego has three victories over nationally ranked opponents, though it is coming off three straight losses to Top 10 teams. UC-San Diego leads the all-time series 13-5 against Princeton, which includes an 11-2 record against the Tigers since the program became an official varsity team at Princeton in 1997. The Tigers can carry some momentum into the match, though; they rallied from an 0-2 hole last season to defeat the Tritons 3-2 for the program's first win over a MPSF team since 1997.
Princeton wouldn't have to wait nearly as long for its next MPSF win, which it won Tuesday to start its 2013 season in dramatic fashion.