PRINCETON, N.J. – The last time Princeton had captured the EIVA title and earn a national championship berth, George Huhmann was less than a year old, and Joe Kelly hadn’t even been born.
When the final point was secured in a five-set Tigers victory, the fans inside the packed Dillon Gymnasium stormed onto the floor, bouncing and shouting in celebration.
The regular-season champion Tigers held off Penn State 28-26, 22-25, 25-18, 20-25, 15-13 on Saturday, April 20, for the second EIVA tournament title and national tournament berth in school history, with the other in 1998.
“That legacy was based on the (1998) championship, and to be able to add to that, and to be a part of continuing a legacy, was just really, really special,” said Bob Sweeney EIVA Coach of the Year Sam Shweisky, who saw scores of program alumni at the match. “It feels a lot bigger than us, and we’re happy to be here in this moment, but really special to be a part of something that’s really big.”
Securing the championship point, and setting off the frenzy of excitement, was Huhmann with his 25th kill of the night. The junior opposite also had six blocks and three aces, hit .426, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player and also was honored during the evening as the Uvaldo Acosta EIVA Player of the Year.
“It’s really cool,” Huhmann said. “All the alums coming back and supporting us, it’s really special. They were in full force tonight, cheering on the sidelines, it got us really excited and pumped up. I’m glad we could win for them.”
Parker Dixon added 15 kills while hitting .483, Greg Luck posted seven blocks and Corry Short had seven digs.
Despite playing in a taught match that lasted 2 hours, 39 minutes, and was in doubt all the way to the final point, the Tigers got an extra shot of adrenaline at just the right time. Huhmann and Luck teamed for a block on Brett Wildman for an 8-7 lead in the fifth, when the teams changed sides. Kendall Ratter followed with a kill, and Luck delivered a solo block on Jason Donorovich for a 10-7 lead, and the Tigers never lost that advantage.
“In the fifth set, switching over to the other side and coming out of the huddle with everybody cheering and clapping, it started to fire up the fans,” said Kelly, a sophomore setter who had 51 assists while directing the Tigers to .373 hitting. “That gave us a little more energy, a little boost that we needed to make a couple big plays.”
Even on the losing end, the Nittany Lions knew they were part of a special night.
“(It was) insane,” Penn State senior outside hitter Matt McLaren said. “I’ve been in a lot of those matches, but it being my last year, and being that close, that competitive, was just like amazing. Looking back, I can’t even remember half the stuff that happened just because I was so excited the whole time.”
While Huhmann had a huge night, nearly equaling his performance was Wildman. The freshman put down 24 kills with .300 hitting. McLaren added 17 kills and seven digs, and EIVA Newcomer of the Year Henrik Falck Lauten had 11 kills and eight digs. Donorovich recorded three blocks, and setter Cole Bogner had a double-double with 52 assists and 11 digs.
“They were playing at a level that we had hoped that we could gotten them to earlier in the year, but they got to it, and it was fun to watch,” Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said. “It’s a shame that somebody had to lose. We just ran out of points.”
- All-Tournament Team: Wildman and Falck Lauten of Penn State, Huhmann, Kelly and Dixon from Princeton, and George Mason’s Hayden Wagner.
- The match was the first EIVA title game to last five sets since Penn State edged Rutgers-Newark 3-2 in 2002.
- The National Championship Tournament draw will be announced at 1 p.m. Sunday, April 21, on NCAA.com. The first round for the seven-team event will be played on campus sites on either April 25 or 26, and the semifinals and finals will be played at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach, Calif., on May 2 and 4. Joining the Tigers with automatic-qualifying bids to the tournament are Barton from the Conference Carolinas, Lewis from the MIVA, Pepperdine from the MPSF, and either Long Beach State or Hawaii, who play late Saturday night in Hawaii, from the Big West. Two more at-large teams will be added to the field Sunday.
- The outcome denied Penn State a chance at its 32nd EIVA title. The Nittany Lions have more EIVA crowns and more NCAA tournament appearances than any other men’s volleyball program.
- For all the volleyball history on Penn State’s side, the Nittany Lions were the more inexperienced team. At some points during the match, Penn State had five first-year players on the court, four of them freshmen.
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“To have Penn State come here and put on a good show, god performance, and play an incredible game of volleyball it was a lot of fun. Wildman played fantastic – it was just a great game of volleyball back and forth, a chess match.”
“(This week) has been pretty special. It’s made me realize how grateful I am to be a part of this, this team and this group of guys, specifically.”
“I don’t think anyone was too exhausted at that point (to start the fifth set). Everyone was full of adrenaline. It was the most exciting game we’ve had all year.”
“Tonight, I couldn’t have been more proud of our guys. If you would have said to me in February, we’ll give you Game 5, (7-7) in the EIVA Championships, I would have jumped on it. This team has been through so much this year with injuries, with different lineups, and their resiliency and their desire to cultivate a true team atmosphere has really paid off for us, certainly this week, and I think this is just the beginnings for this team. The future looks really bright.”
“This may be the most fun match I’ve ever had on the bench. Because you sat there, you were locked in to what we wanted to do strategically, they certainly were locked in competitively, and more than that, you looked out and you saw a team out there. You didn’t see six individuals, you saw a team.”
“They’re going to get better as volleyball players, but if they use this as a springboard for how they compete over the next three or four years, Rec Hall’s going to be jumping. We’re going to have a lot of fun in that gym.”
“To go out in a match like that, where we were just battling out, we gave everything, we did not back off at all – it was amazing. I couldn’t ask to go out any other way.”