The final shot by the reigning EIVA Player of the Year, Aaron Russell, found the waiting hands of both Princeton experience and youth. And then it found the floor, setting off a jubilant celebration in a packed Dillon Gym. The Princeton men's volleyball team ended a 35-match losing streak to the 15-time reigning EIVA champion Penn State Nittany Lions, rallying from an early hole for a 3-2 thriller.
The victory is Princeton's ninth win ever over a ranked program, though it is its first ever over a Top 10 team. It is also its third win ever over Penn State, and its first since the 1998 EIVA semifinal, when the Tigers knocked off Penn State 3-0 en route to its only league championship.
There are still two months of volleyball to play before the 2014 champion is crowned, but Princeton took a big step towards clinching one of the four spots with its upset of the 10th-ranked Nittany Lions. A two-hour thrill ride came down to a first-to-five showdown in front of 1,565 people in a raucous Dillon Gym.
A kill by Russell in the fifth evened the score at 10-10, but Stearns reclaimed the Princeton lead with his team-best 18th kill of the night. Russell hit the antenna to open a 12-10 lead, and senior tri-captain Pat Schwagler followed with a kill to open a three-point edge.
The two squads traded points to give Princeton three match balls, but they would only need one. Russell's swing was blocked by both Schwagler and freshman middle Junior Oboh, clinching the victory and giving the Tigers their first five-set win in five attempts this season.
Of course, if there was one to win, this was it.
"I couldn't be more proud of the guys tonight," head coach Sam Shweisky said. "They continued to battle against a very tough Penn State team, and they showed a ton of heart and resilience in the fifth set. It was an incredible environment tonight, and we appreciated the support of everybody who was part of a great Dillon crowd tonight."
Sophomore Devin Stearns led Princeton with a career-best 18 kills, while junior Cody Kessel had 14 kills, five blocks and two service aces. Schwagler had 12 kills, three blocks and two aces, though four of his kills came during a dominant fifth set. Both Oboh and junior middle Will Siroky had six blocks apiece, while libero Tony Ensbury led the defensive effort with 11 digs.
Freshman Chris Kennedy led the offense with 40 assists, and he added three timely service aces, including one to give Princeton an early lead in the fifth set.
Princeton got out to a slow start, showing nerves against a Penn State team that was on fire in the opening set. The Nittany Lions hit .714 in a 25-18 victory, though Princeton began to find its game midway through the set. The Tigers carried that momentum into the second, where a 12-4 run opened a 15-11 lead. Penn State got within one a couple times, including at 23-22, but back-to-back blocks finished the set and evened the match.
Princeton sprinted out to an 8-1 lead in the third set off the serve of both Kennedy and Schwagler. The Nittany Lions never got within three the rest of the set, which ended with a Schwagler kill. Penn State turned the tables in the fourth, dominating the middle portion of the set and gaining a clear edge. Shweisky used the final points to give his starters a rest, and some energetic plays by the reserves served as a timely inspiration to the starters, who played a terrific final set.
Princeton will return to the court Saturday night at 7 pm against Saint Francis, which picked up a 3-1 road win at George Mason.