All was not well with the Princeton men’s volleyball team when the reigning power in the EIVA last came to Dillon Gym.
The Tigers were 3-6 on the season, but they had already lost four five-set matches, and they were facing an early hole in EIVA play against a team they hadn’t beaten since 1998.
Then came the final night of February, when more 1,500 fans packed a raucous Dillon Gym and watched Princeton cure its five-set phobia at the most opportune time. The most complete effort of the 2014 season left the Tigers on the winning end of a 15-11 thriller in the final set of a 3-2 victory over nationally ranked Penn State.
That match is one of 11 wins Princeton has earned in its last 12 matches. The Tigers are currently 12-7 overall, 7-2 in EIVA play, and have established themselves as legitimate contenders for the EIVA championship.
But they aren’t alone, and they know it.
Penn State, which has never lost a home match to Princeton, remains in front of the EIVA field with a 6-1 league record. Harvard, which capped a season sweep of Princeton with a 3-2 win March 8 (the Tigers’ only loss in the last 12 matches), is 7-2, but it still has a home match to play against Penn State.
And both Saint Francis and George Mason have shown improvements and are likely battling for the fourth and final playoff spot.
We can sit and speculate how they all match up against each other. Or we can watch and see how these next few days play out, when four of the five teams just mentioned will meet in a crucial set of weekend series.
Princeton begins its weekend Friday night at Penn State (7 pm), and will continue with a 4 pm showdown at Saint Francis Saturday. George Mason will play Saint Francis in the final meeting between two teams vying for fourth place, and then the Patriots will head to Penn State Saturday.
Very little is likely to be settled by Sunday, although Princeton could clinch a berth in the postseason if everything falls the right way. The Tigers are also still in contention to host the EIVA playoffs for the first time in program history, but a win over Penn State is almost mandatory.
Should Princeton defeat Penn State, it would own a two-team tiebreaker with the Nittany Lions. But to get there by season’s end, Princeton would likely need to win out and have Penn State beat Harvard on the road; Harvard owns the two-team tiebreaker over Princeton.
There is still plenty left to play out, even beyond this weekend, but a victory Friday night would be just as importance to the team’s psyche as it would be for the record.
Plus, it’s a high-level test for a team with the highest of goals this season.
“As enjoyable as the win was, our goal is still to beat them at the end of the season,” said All-East opposite hitter Cody Kessel. “We know they have gotten better in the past month and we know we have too, so we are very excited to just have another solid chance at competing against a great team. And to still have the chance to host EIVA playoffs on the line adds to the intensity.”
Winning on the road has been a challenge in past years for Princeton; since 2011, Princeton is 1-9 in road matches against Penn State, Harvard and George Mason. Whether it is now or in the postseason, the Tigers know they’ll need at least a couple major road wins to get to the NCAA Championships.
“Just making sure we play confident, energetic volleyball and execute like we always do,” said Kessel, talking about the keys to winning on the road. “We do a lot of things to make sure we are adjusted to new places. We just have to bring a little bit of extra energy sometimes to counter the home crowds and the comfort of the home teams.”
"The biggest factor in our play is serving and passing," fellow All-East standout Pat Schwagler said. "When we serve and pass well, it makes every other facet of the game much easier. We didn't play especially well against Penn State at home, but our serving and passing helped us tremendously through the match.
We've also worked on bringing a relaxed, focused energy to the court," he added. "A lot of times we have gotten tense or frustrated when things haven't gone our way, but we've been focusing on maintaining a more consistent, positive energy."
Princeton enters the weekend on a five-match win streak, including a 3-0 stretch against a trio of teams from Conference Carolinas during the team’s recently completed Spring Break trip.
“The spring break trip was a great opportunity to play some of the top teams in the Conference Carolinas,” head coach Sam Shweisky said. “This year the CC will get an automatic bid into the NCAA playoffs at Loyola Chicago, so it was a great opportunity to familiarize ourselves with some of the top talent in their conference. Additionally it is always nice to travel for spring break and have some great time for team bonding.
“This week was back to business as we buckled down at training and reemphasized a focus on the fundamentals,” Shweisky added. “This last stretch of league matches are critical for the EIVA playoffs and we are excited to get back to competing in league action again this weekend.”