At one time, the Princeton men's volleyball team was one set away from dropping to 0-3 in the EIVA Tait Division and facing a real prospect at relegation. Two months later, Princeton has its best seed ever for the Eastern playoffs, which begins Saturday night in Dillon Gym against the seventh-seeded Sacred Heart Pioneers.
But it wasn't easy. In fact, it was just about the craziest regular season a team could have.
Princeton clinched the second seed outright with a 5-5 record against fellow Tait Division teams. That may not seem like the type of record that earns a second seed, but all things are relative when you have a program like Penn State in your division; if you take the 2008 NCAA and 11-time reigning EIVA champion Nittany Lions out of the mix, Princeton was 5-3 and the only team among the other five Tait squads to produce a winning record.
But 5-3 could easily have been 7-1. Or 1-7.
Princeton opened its Tait Division season with a 3-0 loss at Springfield, which recently won the Division III national championship. It ended its season with a 3-0 win at George Mason, which clinched the second seed and a home quarterfinal match. Excluding the two Penn State matches, every other match went five sets.
Down 2-1 to Saint Francis while 0-2 in divisional play, Princeton rallied to win the next two sets for its first Tait victory of the season. The next weekend, Princeton trailed Juniata 2-0 before winning the next two sets. Then the Tigers trailed in the fifth set and was ultimately two points away from defeat, but they came back for a 15-13 victory.
And away they went.
Princeton won its final four Tait Division home matches in five-set thrillers, including a 17-15 fifth-set victory over George Mason in which the Tigers actually trailed 7-2. The Tigers lost five-set matches at both Saint Francis and Juniata (the latter being another 15-13 final) and needed the last victory at Mason to assure itself both a home playoff match and a chance to stay out of Penn State's half of the draw. The team that seemed to thrive on doing things the hard way suddenly made quick work of a team on the road; Princeton swept Mason, which one week later nearly pushed Penn State to five sets.
Princeton is now the second seed in the EIVA playoffs, which is higher than it has ever been seeded. In its only EIVA championship year, which is also the only year Penn State didn't win the title, Princeton made its title march as the third seed. The Tigers defeated Penn State in the semifinals and Rutgers-Newark in the championship match. Head coach Sam Shweisky and his gritty squad would love nothing more than to see that happen in reverse this season.
Should Princeton defeat Sacred Heart this weekend (more on the Pioneers in a bit), it would head to Penn State this weekend to take on the winner of a quarterfinal match between third-seeded George Mason and sixth-seeded Rutgers-Newark. Mason won a three-team tiebreaker with Saint Francis and Springfield to place third in the Tait, while Rutgers ran away with the Hay Division. Rutgers got off to a disastrous start to its 2010 season by losing nine of its first 10 matches, including once at Princeton; it ended by winning 12 of its final 15 matches, including a 3-1 stunner over Penn State. Mason also had an ugly start, but it rebounded with two late home victories to clinch the third seed.
Princeton, which has not played Sacred Heart yet this season, was a combined 4-0 against both Mason and Rutgers. Naturally, two of the matches went five sets, including a 3-2 victory at Newark in the regular season finale last weekend.
Shweisky's squad has gotten production from members of each class; of the typical starting seven, two are seniors, one is a junior, one is a sophomore and three are freshmen.
Senior co-captains Carl Hamming and Jeff McCown are the most experienced starters for Princeton and will play key roles in the postseason. McCown leads the team and ranks sixth in the EIVA with a .423 hitting percentage, and he also leads Princeton with 1.1 blocks per set. Hamming ranks fourth on the team in total points, but he overcame a couple of tough weeks to play some of his best volleyball at the end of the season; his 22 kills and .559 attack percentage at Mason was critical in Princeton earning the second seed.
Junior Vincent Tuminelli is both an emotional leader and one of Princeton's top hitters. He averages 3.8 kills and 1.5 digs per set and has 12 matches with at least 15 kills this season. When he hits at least .300 for a match, the Tigers are 8-3.
Sophomore Scott Liljestrom is the third Liljestrom to play volleyball at Princeton (behind Jason and R.J.), and he could go a long way in becoming the first to play in an EIVA final. He took over the setting duties after four-year starter Brandon Denham graduated last spring, and his comfort in the offense has made Princeton a challenging team to defend. For the season, Princeton is hitting .304; Liljestrom's ability to distribute the ball, especially to his middles, was key in several of the close Tait victories.
Freshmen Sean Cotter, Michael Dye and Pat Schwagler have made immediate impacts at Princeton, and each will be called on for big performances over the next two weeks. Cotter earned the starting libero job around the middle of the season and has recorded at least 10 digs in five of his last eight matches. Dye, a starting middle, ranks ninth in the EIVA with a .361 attack percentage and is averaging 2.3 kills and .8 blocks per set.
It is Schwagler, though, that could become the breakout star in these playoffs. A major candidate for EIVA Top Newcomer of the Year honors, Schwagler is leading Princeton in points per set (4.3) and kills per set (3.8), and he ranks second in service aces (.2) and third in digs (1.6). He has been plenty good throughout the season, but he has had matches of absolute brilliance; none was better than his 31-kill, 13-dig, .440-attack percentage performance in a 3-2 win over Springfield. That performance earned him the EIVA Player of the Week honor.
It has been the overall depth and versatility of the starting lineup that has helped Princeton earn the second seed in the EIVA. Now it will face a team in Sacred Heart that won 18 matches overall, including a must-win 3-2 victory at Harvard to clinch the final spot in the league standings.
The Pioneers have been led by Kalani Efstathiou and Roger Parent, who have combined for more than 6.5 kills per set. Setter Tim Sadowski is averaging more than 11.3 assists per set and has a team-best 37 service aces, while Mike Komlanc leads the team with more than 1.3 blocks per set.
And recent history should teach Princeton to not take a lower-ranked foe lightly. Two seasons ago, Princeton held a 2-0 lead in an EIVA quarterfinal match against sixth-seeded NJIT, but the Highlanders ralled back for a stunning 3-2 victory.
This 2010 squad seems to be well aware of dealing with in-match adversity, though. It's been there all season.
And more often than not, Princeton has overcome it. And it earned a home playoff match because of it.
"We are very excited to be hosting the first round of the EIVA playoffs here at Princeton," Shweisky said. "The guys have worked extremely hard all season long and are looking forward to the opportunity to compete in the playoffs."