When the Princeton men's volleyball takes the court Thursday night in the second EIVA semifinal, it will face an opportunity as golden as possible.
It was only three weeks ago when the season appeared to be slipping away from Princeton, a team that was starting five underclassmen, none of whom had experienced postseason play for the Tigers.
Then came April, and the Tigers caught fire. Six wins later, including two league victories by matching 3-2 scores last week, sent Princeton to a semifinal showdown with top-seeded Penn State (8 pm, or 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Harvard-George Mason semfinal).
The Nittany Lions, winners of 20 of the last 21 EIVA Championships, will be heavily favored to return to the NCAA Championship. They haven't lost a league match in State College since Valentine's Day, 1998. And they haven't lost an individual home set to Princeton since eight days before that. After a first-set loss in the regular season on Feb. 6, 1998, Penn State has won 54 consecutive sets at home over the Orange and Black.
But this particular Princeton team will bring two things into Rec Hall that few opponents carry: momentum and belief.
The momentum comes from the afore-mentioned six-match win streak, but mostly from a pair of do-or-die victories over NJIT and George Mason last week. The NJIT win saw Princeton rally from an 0-2 hole to claim three straight in its Dillon Gym finale. The Tigers followed with a road win at a playoff qualifier, and they saw two starting freshmen do enough that afternoon to sweep the EIVA weekly honors.
As for the belief, that comes from March 30, 2012, when Princeton went toe-to-toe with Penn State in an EIVA classic. The Tigers had eight match balls in a thrilling fourth set, which went the way of the Nittany Lions by a 37-35 score, and nearly rallied in the fifth before falling 15-12. Since Princeton last beat Penn State in the 1998 EIVA semifinal, the Tigers had never gotten nearly this close to a win over the Nittany Lions.
Now doing that in State College, or doing it in the postseason, well, that's another story. But it's one that nobody thought this team would even have the chance to author last month.
So, with nothing to lose and history to make, Princeton is ready for its EIVA semifinal.
While the freshmen (more on them later) have stolen the show recently, head coach Sam Shweisky will rely on experience to guide his team against Penn State. Both senior setter Scott Liljestrom and junior middle Michael Dye were on the court when Princeton pushed Penn State hard in the 2010 EIVA championship match.
Dye, who earned all-tournament team honors that postseason, has had a brilliant junior year despite covering multiple positions due to injury. He earned First-Team All-EIVA honors this past week after leading the league with a .343 attack percentage and finishing second on the team with 2.3 kills per set. The moment wasn't too big for him as a freshman, and it certainly won't be for him this year.
The same can be said for Liljestrom, who is looking to join Jason Morrow '00 as the only setter to start in two EIVA championship matches. He earned Second-Team All-EIVA honors this season after ranking in the top five in the league with 9.84, but his leadership role has meant just as much as his on-court play.
The freshman trio of Cody Kessel, Will Siroky and Tony Ensbury has given Princeton volleyball the shot in the arm it needed after a tough 2011 season. Kessel was just named the EIVA Newcomer of the Year after leading the league with 4.0 kills and 4.6 points per set; his kill total ranks sixth nationally and first among all freshmen.
Siroky was just named the EIVA Offensive Player of the Week after recording 16 kills without an error in the 3-2 road win at George Mason. He is hitting .440 for the season, a total that would rank second nationally if he qualified (you need to average four attacks per set, and Siroky averages 3.3).
Ensbury set a career high with 17 digs against Mason to earn EIVA Defensive Player of the Week honors. His presence on the court paid immediate dividends to Princeton in the defense and passing game, and he'll need to be at his best Thursday against a Penn State team that leads the EIVA with a .315 attack percentage.
Two sophomores will be making their postseason debut, and both will be critical to Princeton's chances against Penn State. Outsides Jeff Stapleton and Davis Waddell have both produced strong performances recently, but Princeton will need at least one to have a season-best effort Thursday night. Neither has ever had more than six kills in one match against the Nittany Lions, so either could become a major difference maker if they get hot that night.
The task won't be simple. Since Morrow and company led Princeton past Penn State in the 1998 EIVA semifinal, no team has been able to knock off the Nittany Lions when the postseason rolled around.
But simple tasks don't lead to this level of opportunity.
Penn State awaits.
Perhaps history does as well.