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Rematch with Penn State could determine home advantage in playoffs

Princeton men’s volleyball will travel to take on a pair of Pennsylvania opponents in No. 13 Penn State (15-6 overall, 6-1 Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association) and St. Francis (4-3, 9-10 EIVA). The Tigers (12-7 overall, 7-2 EIVA) have their eyes toward the playoffs, with only three regular-season weeks remaining after this pair of matchups.

Senior hitter Davis Waddell spoke about the necessity to refine their form in their final few contests.

“We’re gearing up toward the playoffs,” he said. “Really for us, we’re looking at putting ourselves in a position to get hot at the right time.”

Perennial champion Penn State has, according to Waddell, had such consistent postseason success due to its ability to play its best volleyball down the stretch.

“Hopefully, we’ll be peaking at the right time during the EIVA playoff weekend,” he explained. “The past few years, the team that has won has been playing its best late in the season. We’re trying to be that team this year.”

The Saturday before spring break, a heartbreaking loss to Harvard — the sets were scored a near-perfectly balanced 20-25, 25-20, 18-25, 25-18, 15-12 in favor of the visiting Crimson — broke Princeton’s six-game winning streak. Marathon matches appear to be the standard between the Tigers and the Crimson, who have played five sets in four of their last five meetings. In a rebound series of five away matchups, the Princeton men put together five wins, building momentum for this potentially decisive contest in State College, Pa.

The Nittany Lions have won 16 of the past 17 EIVA championships. The one exception came in 1998 when our very own Tigers pulled off the feat. Additionally, the Penn State behemoth has won the NCAA national title twice: 1994 and 2008. The Lions’ outside hitter Aaron Russell is widely considered one of the nation’s best, having won the conference’s top award in the 2013 Uvaldo Acosta Memorial EIVA Player of the Year award.

The opportunity at a season sweep over rival Penn State, according to Waddell, is immensely significant for the team and its profile moving toward the postseason.

“For us, it’s really meaningful. You beat them once, and it’s kind of a big deal. But if you beat them twice, it becomes a real talking point. And also, if we beat them, we have an outside shot at hosting the EIVA tournament.”

This year, the two EIVA Ivy League teams appear poised for upsets over the league giant from State College. Princeton has taken one from Penn State, while Harvard has pulled off a season sweep of Princeton. Should the Tigers pull off a win this Friday, and should the Nittany Lions top the Crimson once again, the three teams could finish the regular season in a three-way tie for first, with Harvard likely coming out on top.

Four teams at the top of the table earn a playoff berth, with the regular season champion receiving home-court advantage.

Penn State has the star power of Russell, but its rotation is replete with talent. Waddell has experience in facing the Nittany Lions and acknowledges that their completeness poses a substantial test in every meeting.

“Really, you just have to hope to slow (Russell) down,” he said, “and shut down the other guys the best you can. There are a lot of teams we play that have a hole here or there. But this is one of the few teams in the EIVA which is really complete, which is a big challenge for us.”

The second game of the weekend comes against another league opponent in St. Francis. Earlier this season, the Tigers pulled off a convincing 3-0 home win — scores were 25-19, 25-21, 25-20 — over the Red Flash. While the team is confident in its ability to earn a victory in this Saturday’s contest, it knows it cannot look past its matchup in Loretto, Pa., if it wishes to hang around the top of the league.

“We’ve played really well at St. Francis the last two years,” Waddell said. “They also get their starting center back this weekend. So they’re going to be a little more dynamic team than we faced when we played them at home.”

Two recent standouts for the Tigers have been hitters Cody Kessel, a junior, and David Stearns, a sophomore. Playing in all but two of Princeton’s matches, they lead the team with 215 and 200 kills per set, respectively.

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