The Princeton men's volleyball team will be looking to accomplish two major goals this weekend. The first will be to clinch a berth in the EIVA postseason before the calendar hits April; the second centers around the possibility of hosting the league championships for the first time.
Of course, with a goal that lofty, you know the biggest obstacle in the EIVA must be involved.
Second-place Princeton (9-6, 7-2 EIVA) will host both Saint Francis (8-13, 5-5) and No. 13 Penn State (15-6, 9-1) in a pair of matches that will go a long way in determining the league postseason race. The Tigers open the two-match homestand Thursday night (7 pm) against Saint Francis, and then return Friday night at 7 to take on the 13th-ranked Nittany Lions.
Let's take this one match at a time.
While the Penn State match will draw the major buzz around campus (and based on both the Dillon Gym environment last season against Penn State and this season against Harvard, that could be serious buzz), there is actually more at stake Thursday night against the Red Flash.
Princeton men's volleyball, even during its run to the 2010 EIVA championship match, has rarely taken the easy road to the postseason. Last season, the Tigers needed to win its final two matches, including one from an 0-2 deficit, simply to clinch the playoff spot. Princeton hasn't even posted a winning EIVA Tait/EIVA record since the 2003 season, but it can virtually clinch both with the win over Saint Francis.
A victory Thursday would give Princeton an 8-2 record in the league, while Saint Francis would fall to 5-6. If every other match went against the Tigers, they could still do no worse than matching 8-6 records with the Red Flash, and they would own the tiebreaker over Saint Francis due to a season sweep. (There is a scenario that could include multiple teams ending the season with 8-6 records, but it's highly unlikely, so we'll cross that bridge if we get to it.)
If Princeton can win Thursday, then it sets itself up for a major showdown with the dominant power in the EIVA. The 13th-ranked Nittany Lions have won every league title since Princeton's lone championship in 1998, and Penn State is currently atop the league standings once again.
Princeton has played a trio of memorable matches against Penn State since head coach Sam Shweisky took over prior to the 2010 season. The first came in the 2010 EIVA championship match, when the Tigers pushed Penn State for two thrilling sets before finally falling 3-0.
Then came the wild 3-2 Penn State win at Dillon Gym last season, when Princeton held eight match balls in a crazy 37-35 fourth set. Princeton hasn't defeated Penn State since the 1998 EIVA semifinal, and this was easily the closest any Tiger team has come since. Cody Kessel, en route to earning the EIVA Newcomer of the Year honor, had 25 kills in the win, while current senior captain Michael Dye had 15 kills and six blocks.
The first meeting this season was a close 3-1 Penn State victory in State College, though there were positives to take from that match as well. It was the first time Princeton took a set off Penn State on the road since (you guessed it) 1998, and it was a match when the outside combination of Pat Schwagler and Devin Stearns combined for 25 kills.
If Penn State defeats Princeton, it would lead the Tigers by two in the loss column and own the tiebreak, which would virtually eliminate Princeton from hosting the EIVA playoffs (April 25-27). If Penn State beats Princeton in five sets, the Nittany Lions would hold a half-game lead in the standings, but they would also own the tiebreaker based on aggregate sets played.
A 3-1 Princeton win would leave the two teams tied in aggregate sets, and a 3-0 victory would actually give Princeton the head-to-head edge. A Princeton sweep and a Saturday night loss for Penn State at George Mason would move Princeton to at least a share of first place in the EIVA race.
A victory Friday night would also give Princeton three ranked wins this season, which would match the program best (1998). This Tiger team has played more nationally ranked opponents than any Princeton team over the last decade, including a season-opening 3-1 win over UC Santa Barbara, which is currently ranked eighth nationally.
Princeton lost two road matches last weekend against ranked opponents, but it came back with a 3-0 sweep at Rutgers-Newark to move into a second-place tie in the league standings. The win earned Schwagler and Dye the EIVA Offensive and Defensive Player of the Week honors.