It hasn't taken long for this particular EIVA season to take on a unique feel. The lone league unbeaten is George Mason, and Harvard is coming off a home sweep of Penn State. Princeton will spend the next two weeks trying to work itself into the conversation, a process that starts with a critical road pair this weekend.
Princeton, riding a three-game win streak, is currently fourth in the young EIVA season with a 2-1 record. It will travel to Saint Francis Friday night for a 7 pm showdown, and follow that with a 7 pm match Saturday night at 14-time reigning champion Penn State.
The Tigers, who dropped their league opener at George Mason, have come back with a home win over Rutgers-Newark and a thrilling 3-2 road win at NJIT. Saint Francis is 2-3 in the league, good enough for fifth, though all three of its losses have come to either Penn State or Harvard. Penn State is second with a 4-1 record, though it suffered its first league loss since 2009 last weekend at Harvard.
Penn State eliminated Princeton from the 2012 EIVA playoffs with a 3-0 home victory at the Rec Center. That extended Penn State's home win streak over Princeton to 19 straight matches, and the Nittany Lions have won all 57 individual sets in the process. Of course, it was Princeton's near upset of Penn State at Dillon Gym last season, when the Tigers held eight match balls but couldn't finish off the Nittany Lions in a marathon 3-2 loss, that showed the promise of a young squad that included three key freshman starters.
So now Princeton gets another shot at Penn State, and you can argue that it will be the biggest match of the young season for the Tigers, who will again measure themselves against the standard of EIVA excellence.
Or you can argue that it isn't even the biggest match of the weekend for Princeton.
Only four teams from the eight-team EIVA will advance to the postseason (April 25-27), and a win over Penn State this weekend would mean far less than a win during the final weekend of April. Of course, if you aren't involved in the weekend, you can't beat anybody. The line between fourth-place Princeton and fifth-place Saint Francis represents the line between the postseason and an early summer, and a road win for the Tigers over the Red Flash would be a major early step towards securing one of those four coveted postseason spots.
Princeton and Saint Francis have split the season series five straight years, with Princeton earning a road win last season. Cody Kessel and Michael Dye combined for 23 kills in the 3-0 victory last season, which included a 33-31 Princeton win in the middle set.
While those two were both All-EIVA performers last season, junior Pat Schwagler has been Princeton's top offensive option this season. He leads the EIVA in kills/set (4.0), points/set (4.7) and attack percentage (.383). He is one of four players to be ranked among the national Top 10 in both kills and attack percentage.
Sophomore Tony Ensbury has also gotten off to a strong start this season; he ranks second in the EIVA with 2.54 digs per set. He trails only Nick Bancroft, who he will compete against Friday night at Saint Francis.