PRINCETON, N.J. - The legacy of the Tony Ensbury-Cody Kessel-Will Siroky senior trio is set and secure. Now that group seeks the ultimate exclamation point to their incredible four-year journey.
When those three were seniors in high school, already committed to playing collegiate volleyball in Orange and Black, the Tigers were struggling through a rough 4-18 season. One year removed from the EIVA championship match, graduation and injuries hampered a 2011 Tiger team that just never found its footing.
On Jan. 30, 2012, a new era began. Ensbury, Kessel and Siroky were starters in the first match of the season; three days later, they led Princeton to a 3-2 win over UC-San Diego, one of several MPSF wins the Tigers would earn over the next four years. In fact, that four-year journey would include:
• five wins over nationally ranked opponents; Princeton had a total of three during the previous 13 seasons.
• four straight trips to the EIVA semifinals; the Tigers had made only three trips to the semifinals since 2000.
• after 35 straight losses to Penn State, this happened.
They have checked almost every box of accomplishments possible, but the final one would easily be the sweetest of all. Since Princeton won the 1998 EIVA Championship at Rutgers-Newark, there have been two constants in this league. The host team has won 17 straight EIVA championships, and Penn State has hosted 17 straight EIVA playoffs.
You can do the math.
Princeton won't have to wait long in its attempt to end that dominant run. A loss at George Mason last weekend left the Tigers as the fourth seed, meaning they will draw Penn State in the second of two Wednesday semifinals. Second-seeded Harvard will host George Mason at 5 pm, with the winner to play in Friday's championship match against the Penn State-Princeton victor.
Tickets are $8 for an adult, $5 for a youth, and can be purchased by calling 1-800-NITTANY or at the door on game day. There are live stats and live video options as well, which you can access through the "Tournament Central" link at the top of the page.
While Ensbury, Kessel and Siroky may be the veterans on this team, it's also a group loaded with both chemistry and experience that will head to State College. Six of the seven starters were on the court when Princeton both defeated Penn State last season and reached the EIVA championship match.
One of those starters is middle Junior Oboh, who joined Kessel on the All-EIVA First Team this season. Oboh has been among the league leaders in both hitting percentage and blocks, and he joins Siroky to create one of the best middle tandems in Princeton volleyball history.
Junior outside Devin Stearns has played the best stretch of volleyball in his Princeton career over the second half of this past season, but he also showed the ability to rise to the occasion in the two biggest wins of the last five seasons; in Princeton's 2014 wins over Penn State and Harvard, the latter coming in the EIVA semifinal, Stearns recorded 35 kills (3.9 per set) and hit over .300 in both matches.
Sophomore Chris Kennedy and Ensbury have both been All-EIVA players, and both are leaders in different aspects of the team. Kennedy is a two-year starting setter who averaged 9.38 assists per set this season; in the EIVA clincher over Saint Francis, he had 54 assists. Ensbury has been the team's primary libero since Day 1, as well as a two-year member of the U.S.A. Junior National Team, and he remains one of the team's most vocal leaders.
And then there is Kessel, a four-time First-Team All-EIVA honoree and one of three Princeton players all-time to earn All-America recognition. He ranks third in the NCAA in both kills (4.32) and points (5.20) per set; amazingly, one of the two players above him in both will be on the other side of the net Wednesday night. Penn State senior Aaron Russell, the three-time EIVA Player of the Year, will go down as one of the best players in the history of the league. He has helped push Penn State back into the national Top 10 following a slow start, and it was his service run in the third set that turned around an eventual 3-1 Penn State win at Dillon Gym last month.
Russell has been the best player in the EIVA this season. Perhaps he is the best player in the country. Few teams have one player who can go toe-to-toe with Russell and keep his team in the hunt, but Princeton fits in that category. Kessel is a special player, in a special class, and that group has the chance to make the 2015 Princeton Tigers a special team.
Would Princeton have liked to a higher seed this weekend? Yes.
Would Princeton have preferred to go into the postseason with more momentum? Yes.
Will any of that matter when the first serve goes across the net? No.
Princeton wanted this opportunity. Whether it came Wednesday or Friday, they wanted to be the first one to end Penn State's run. They'll get that chance one more time.
They may win. They may not.
But they earned this opportunity, and you can rest assured they won't back down from it.