The Princeton men's volleyball team thrilled a capacity crowd at Dillon Gym and nearly stunned perennial EIVA champion Penn State, but the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions fought off eight match balls in a dramatic fourth set and ultimately held on for a 3-2 victory.
While Penn State walks out with the victory, Princeton goes into the final stretch of its season knowing it can now contend with the best team in the EIVA. The Tigers are still on the outside looking in for the four-team postseason, but they can make a big step forward with a home win Saturday at 2 pm against Saint Francis.
Princeton, which fell 23-25, 25-22, 23-25, 27-35, 15-12 Friday night, had lost 22 consecutive individual sets against Penn State, and hasn't recorded a win over the Nittany Lions since the 1998 EIVA semifinal. If Princeton can fight its way to a fourth seed, it could earn a rematch with the Nittany Lions in the 2012 semifinal.
Freshman Cody Kessel led Princeton with 25 kills, which came one match after recording 31 kills in a 3-2 win over Juniata. He added 10 digs, seven blocks and hit .333 for the match. Junior middle Michael Dye hit .500 with 15 kills and six blocks, while freshman middle Will Siroky added 12 kills, seven blocks and hit .455. As a team, Princeton outblocked Penn State 15.5-6.5.
"It was great to have that type of atmosphere in our building for such a quality league match," head coach Sam Shweisky said. "I'm extremely proud of our serve, block and defense system. We followed our plan and outblocked them significantly."
Senior setter Scott Liljestrom paced an extremely efficient offense with 56 assists, while freshman libero Tony Ensbury added eight digs. Ensbury and sophomore Davis Waddell combined for 69 of Princeton's 100 service returns against the explosive Penn State serve attack.
Despite trailing 17-12 in the opener, Princeton made a run on the serve of Michael Dye and Dexter Scobee to get back within one point. A kill by Waddell evened the set at 21, and consecutive errors gave Princeton a 23-21 lead. A Kessel kill gave Princeton the set and inspired the capacity crowd, which had a large amount of supporters for both teams.
Penn State held off Princeton in the second and got out to a 9-4 lead in the third, but Princeton again began to chip away. A 6-1 run, capped off by a combo block by Waddell and Kessel, gave Princeton a 15-14 lead. Penn State would eventually go back up 22-21, but Princeton got two straight blocks to retake the lead. At 24-23, Princeton pulled off a triple block to get within one set of the upset.
One set ultimately became one point, and it became it eight different times. Princeton stayed close with Penn State throughout the fourth and grabbed its first match ball on a Kessel kill, but the experienced Nittany Lions used a strong passing game on the Princeton serve to get consistently quality swings. Princeton fought off two game balls early before grabbing the lead again, and it came within inches on the eighth match ball, as a near combo block fell just outside the sideline. Instead, Penn State would finally grab the lead again and take the set on a kill from Joe Sunder, who led Penn State with 25 kills.
The Nittany Lions used that momentum to race out to a 5-0 lead, but Princeton dug deep one more time and battled back. The set would get to 10-8 before the Nittany Lions scored three straight. Princeton fought off three match balls before a kill by Aaron Russell ended it.