Volleyball Eyes Semifinal Showdown With Harvard To Open EIVA Championships
EIVA CHAMPIONSHIP CENTRAL (includes links for live stats, live video, tickets, etc.)
The EIVA Championships have been the Penn State Open throughout this century, with three hopeful NCAA qualifiers making the trek to State College, Pa., each spring looking to pull off what only Princeton has done in the last 20 years.
One by one, they return home disappointed. Most of the time, the team that has dreamed of ending Penn State’s run has been eliminated in quick order by the Nittany Lions.
Princeton has been that team three times in the last four years, including once in the 2010 EIVA championship match. Maybe it will be that team again. Maybe it won’t get that opportunity. Maybe it will even be the team that wins the program’s second EIVA Championship and punches its ticket to the 2014 NCAA Championships.
But here’s the thing. For once, Penn State isn’t even on Princeton’s radar right now.
You see, there is a team between Princeton and a date in Saturday’s EIVA final. And it isn’t just any other EIVA program. Nope.
Princeton has 38 varsity sports, and 33 of them are officially Ivy League members. They are used to playing Harvard, and often for the highest stakes possible.
Men’s volleyball is one of Princeton’s five teams that doesn’t compete within the Ivy League (men’s and women’s water polo, women’s lightweight rowing and sprint football are the others), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a special rivalry between the two programs.
In fact, because there are only two Ivy League schools that support men’s volleyball as a varsity sport, this rivalry runs as deep as any. There are multiple connections between players from the two teams, either at the high school or club level. Harvard head coach Brian Baise is a member of the Princeton Class of 1995 and a former starter under legendary Tiger head coach Glenn Nelson.
Both teams have multiple upperclassmen in the starting lineup, meaning the core of the two squads have been going at it for years. Harvard has had the advantage overall, going 5-1 against the Tigers over the last three years, but the matches have been remarkably close. In fact, Harvard’s last four wins, including both this season, have been by 3-2 scores.
Even more remarkably, Princeton has actually outscored Harvard both this season and over the last two seasons, though they are 0-2 against the Crimson this year and 1-3 in the last two.
What does it all mean? Two things:
1) These teams are remarkably close in talent.
2) Once the first serve is hit, nothing.
Harvard has a couple things going for it. Besides its recent success against Princeton, the Crimson stunned George Mason in the 2013 EIVA semifinal. That has to add extra confidence to the team, since most of the players from that match will take the floor for Thursday’s 5 pm semifinal match.
But while Harvard has experience, Princeton has ultimate freedom. The Crimson is the team with the perfect record against the Tigers this season. The Crimson is the team that made the finals last season. The Crimson is the team with the higher seed and the 5-4 edge in All-EIVA players.
On the flip side, Princeton can go into the match with the confidence of knowing it can handle the biggest of matches — nobody has forgotten the 3-2 home win over Penn State earlier this season — but without the pressure of being the expected finalist Saturday night at 7 pm.
While few others may believe in the Tigers, they will go in with confidence in themselves. The team has a trio of current or former first-team All-EIVA honorees, including three-time selection Cody Kessel. It has four starters with three years of experience, and a fifth in Devin Stearns who made his debut on the All-EIVA team this season.
As for the freshman duo of setter Chris Kennedy and middle Junior Oboh, you never know what you’ll get during their first postseason. But Kennedy will go head-to-head against Harvard freshman setter Nick Bendell, and both have faced multiple high-pressure situations already this year.
There is no reason to expect anything less than another thriller. Typically, they play for an “Ivy League championship trophy,” which is placed on the scorer’s table between the two teams during their regular season matches.
That trophy is a fun spoil in a good rivalry. But something far greater is on the line Thursday.
Princeton and Harvard will play to keep their future alive, and for the opportunity to make a little history two nights later.
Princeton. Harvard. It doesn't need to fall in the Ivy League to be a magical rivaly.
Semifinal #2: George Mason at Penn State
The Penn State Nittany Lions have the two-time EIVA Player of the Year in Aaron Russell, and they are currently ranked 12th nationally. They have won eight straight matches since a loss to No. 1 Loyola-Chicago, and they are a ridiculous 48-2 in individual sets over the last eight EIVA championship weekends.
They are the only team to have defeated every team in the EIVA this season, and they simply never lose at home to an EIVA opponent.
George Mason was a senior-dominated team in 2013 that expected to be in the final, but Harvard stunned the Patriots in a five-set semifinal. This year’s Mason team is young, talented and free of expectations. The Patriots had to fight just to make the postseason, but they have a potentially devastating duo in reigning Newcomer of the Year Radoslav Popov and lefthander Paco Velez, who had about 1,000 kills against Princeton over the last two weeks.
OK, it was 36, but it felt like more.
George Mason will enter the 7:30 pm semifinal as a distinct underdog, but the Patriots pushed Penn State in four tough sets at home this season and should play a relaxed, aggressive match. If they can figure out a way to split the first two sets, watch out.