Princeton’s volleyball match against No. 10 Penn State on Friday evening was marketed like a Friday Night Fights boxing match, and it lived up to the reputation. In a slugfest, Princeton (5-6 overall, 4-1 EIVA) and Penn State (12-3, 5-1) exchanged blows as Princeton managed to pull off one of the largest upsets in program history in a five-set marathon that went down to the wire. The Tigers had lost each of their last 35 matches against the Nittany Lions, with Princeton last prevailing in 1998 in the EIVA semifinal en route to their first and only EIVA title to date.
The Penn State fans arrived en masse, and 30 minutes before the game started there was hardly a spare seat in the house. Come game time you’d have thought that you had turned up to a national championship game with the electrifying vibe created by the 1500-plus fans packed into Dillon Gymnasium.
“Having the huge crowd and support helped a lot, they were like a seventh man out there, I think a couple of our friends from some of the eating clubs got inside some of the Penn State servers heads,” senior co-captain and outside hitter Pat Schwagler said.
Penn State showed why they are 10th in the nation as they got up for an early lead and never looked back, taking the first set 25-18. The second set started out the same, with Penn state jumping to a 7-3 lead before sophomore outside hitter Devin Stearns transcended to the heavens to send an undefendable shot crashing down on the Penn State defense. A followup ace by freshman setter Chris Kennedy proved to be the catalyst for the Tiger resurgence that was to follow. The Nittany Lions had their tails between their legs as they faced the onslaught of the fired-up Tiger offense. Stearns and freshman middle blocker Junior Oboh combined for a lethal block to take the set 25-22. The Princeton express had gathered momentum and it had no intention of stopping in the thirdset. Junior outside hitter Cody Kessel added six of his 14 kills on the night in the set as the Tigers powered home a 25-19 win.
“I think we came out a little bit cold, but as soon as we went into that second game we could feel the crowd behind us and once things started to go our way we knew we had the potential to win. We were able to carry that momentum into the third and once we took that set, we could feel the win within our grasp,” said Stearns of the opening three sets.
Entering the fourth set down, the Nittany Lions regained their composure to get out to a 19-11 lead before Princeton head coach Sam Shweisky pulled out the starters to prepare them for the fifth and final set. Senior middle blocker Brad Howard led the resistance with an impressive kill that proved to be a hit with the spectators. Penn State went on to win the set 25-15.
“Penn State had a big lead and momentum-wise it’s hard to claw back from that sort of spread. I told the guys to sit down and relax, but the most critical thing was the guys who went in brought such energy. When Brad Howard got that kill, the crowd literally erupted; it felt like we were winning the game. That was a huge momentum change for us as a team to go into the fifth set and play well,” Shweisky said.
As the final set got underway, 1,565 fans were on the edge of their seats. A Princeton attacking error gave Penn State the opening point before Stearns equalized with an impressive kill. Kennedy followed up with some brilliance of his own in the form of his third ace of the game as the slugfest continued with each team exchanging hits. With the score locked at 10-10, it was hard to forget the four previous times this season the Tigers lost in the fifth and deciding set. Princeton removed all worry of déjà vu with some razzle dazzle from Stearns in the form of a majestic kill and a forced attacking error, which brought the Tigers to a 12-10 lead.
“We’ve had a tough schedule and we’ve dropped a lot of five-setters, but that’s what prepares you, when you go through those hard matches, and that’s what paid off for us today at the end,” Kessel said.
Standout Schwagler followed with a magnificent kill, slicing through the Penn State block to bring Princeton’s lead to three. An attacking error gave Penn State one back, before Schwagler followed up with a kill that sent chills down the spine of even the most hardened sports fan. With Penn State on their back foot, the Tigers needed just one last act of brilliance to break the 16-year dry spell. Every patron in Dillon was on their feet. Then it happened. Schwagler combined with Oboh in what can only be described as a work of art to block Penn State’s shot. Princeton ended the 35-game losing streak to the Nittany Lions with the 15-11 final set victory. For senior co-captain Schwagler, it was a win four years in the making.
“It’s bittersweet, I’ve been waiting for that moment my entire career, it’s been a long time. We’ve had some heartbreaking losses and it couldn’t have been better to finally beat them,” he said. The win hands Penn State their first conference loss of the season, leaving it, Harvard and Princeton as the top three in the EIVA with one loss apiece. With much league play ahead, the win does not guarantee anything with regards to conference playoffs. For head coach Shweisky, the goal remains the same, and that is to win the EIVA Championship.
“I believe Penn State’s been the favorite, and they are still the favorite. Until you can consistently beat someone, I think mathematically they are still the favorite. We like being the underdog. It’s a good role for us to relish and play in,” he said. “What it does is it keeps encouraging us of the possibility, that it can be done. Will we win? I don’t know. Are we guaranteed to? Absolutely not. But it shows that we can.”
Following up the historic win, the Tigers returned to Dillon the next day to make light work of fourth-placed EIVA team St. Francis, as Princeton cruised to a 3-0 straight sets victory. Three Tigers hit over .500 as the team combined to hit a very efficient .468 overall. Junior middle Will Siroky was a sniper on the court, recording nine kills on only 11 swings for a .818 hitting percentage. Kessel looked great on and off the court as per usual, as he notched 13 kills on 19 swings (.632), two digs, a block and a service ace. The dynamic freshman duo of Oboh and Kennedy impressed again, with Oboh hitting .625 as he recorded six kills, two blocks and two service aces and Kennedy adding 36 assists.