Eight sets ago, the Princeton men's volleyball team stared down a disastrous ending to its 2012 season. It stared, but it refused to wilt. One of the gutsiest weeks in program history concluded Saturday evening with a hard-fought 3-2 victory at George Mason and a berth in the EIVA postseason.
That win, combined with Penn State's 3-0 victory over Saint Francis, left both Princeton and the Red Flash with matching 7-7 EIVA records. Princeton earned the bid due to a better regular-season set record in head-to-head matches; the Tigers scored a 3-0 road win early in the season, while the Red Flash would manage only a 3-1 win over Princeton.
And that would be enough to send Princeton back to the postseason.
A trio of freshmen grew up quickly to make sure that their first season would include playoff experience. Freshman Cody Kessel, who leads all members of the Class of 2015 nationally in kills, had a team-best 17 kills and added five digs and three blocks, while classmate Tony Ensbury recorded a career-best 17 digs and added two assists.
And then there was Will Siroky.
Siroky, a starting middle, played the best match of his season at the most opportune time. He recorded a career-high 16 kills without making a single error, and he added two blocks and two aces to his .727 attack percentage. Siroky and Kessel combined for 33 of Princeton's 45 kills in a 19-25, 25-22, 22-25, 25-23, 15-11 victory at George Mason, who will be joining Princeton, Harvard and host Penn State at the EIVA playoffs this week.
"When we needed Will Siroky to put this team on his back, he answered the call," head coach Sam Shweisky said after leading the Tigers to a second EIVA postseason appearance in the last three years. "I am so proud of both Will and the whole team for the fight they showed today. We can't wait to go to Penn State and compete for the EIVA championship."
The excitement at earning the fourth seed is in stark contrast to where the team stood at about 8:00 Wednesday night, when it trailed NJIT 2-0 at home without any margin for error. Princeton clawed back into the match behind the leadership of Scott Liljestrom and Michael Dye, both of whom know what it feels like to play in the EIVA championship match.
Liljestrom recorded 35 assists and 12 digs Saturday at Mason, while Dye added seven kills, three blocks and a service ace for the Tigers, who will play top-seeded Penn State in one of two quarterfinals.
"The last week we've shown so much fight," said Liljestrom, the third of a trio of brothers to play volleyball at Princeton. "It's really rare to have freshmen lead a team into the playoffs, but that's what makes our team to special. Will, Cody, and Tony stepped up in a huge way today. It got to the point where they knew we would set Will and they just couldn't stop him. Cody and Tony were consistent like they've been all year.
"We've developed a lot of grit and mental toughness through these matches the past week and we can't wait to put that to use in the EIVA tournament," he added.
While Princeton may be a heavy underdog in that match, likely a 7:30 pm start at Rec Hall, it will also come into it knowing that it held eight match balls in a 3-2 loss to Penn State — a match that featured a heartstopping 37-35 fourth set.
Princeton trailed Mason 1-0 and 2-1, but it delivered the goods once again. The fourth set was close throughout, but Princeton built a 24-23 lead on an attack error and clinched the set with a combo block from the freshman duo of Kessel and Siroky.
The fifth set was even at 7-7 when Liljestrom pushed the Tigers to a big lead on his service run. A kill by Siroky got it started, and a solo block by Kessel combined with a trio of hitting errors but Princeton in control. A service ace eventually got Princeton to a 13-7 lead, and then Liljestrom found the red-hot Siroky twice to finish the match.
GoPrincetonTigers.com will have a full preview of the EIVA postseason during the week.