UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With a new year well underway, a new semester filled with Penn State Athletics events is beginning to pick up. Among a few programs opening a new season in the heart of winter, Penn State men's volleyball opened 2017 last weekend with a road-split at the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge in Columbus, Ohio.
Ranked No. 14 in the latest release of the AVCA DI-II Men's Coaches Poll, the Nittany Lions dropped a 3-0 decision to second-ranked UCLA in the season opener, before rebounding with a close five-set win against USC.
As Penn State preps for another weekend on the road at No. 15 Ball State and Fort Wayne, take a look at five things you need to know before the Nittany Lions return to Rec Hall the following weekend to welcome Loyola (Chicago) Thursday, Jan. 19 and Lewis Friday, Jan. 20. First serve for both matches is set for 7 p.m.
1. Braswell Emerges
Penn State redshirt freshman setter Luke Braswell has stepped up to lead the Nittany Lion offense, replacing four-time All-EIVA selection Taylor Hammond who departed last season following graduation. Settling into the new role as the leader of the offensive, Braswell dished out 27 assists in his collegiate debut against UCLA, adding three aces one dig and one block. Against the Trojans, he directed the team to a .371 hitting efficiency, tallying 62 assists to go along with nine digs, three blocks, three kills and two aces.
"I think there were a little bit of nerves in the first match against UCLA both on his part and [Cal] Mende's part and the passers parts, but once everything settled down Luke just looked like a old veteran trying to do what we had asked him to do and followed the game plan really well," Penn State head coach Mark Pavlik said.
2. New Faces on the Court
Along with Braswell, a total of three Nittany Lions made their collegiate debuts during the opening weekend, including redshirt freshman Cal Mende. Mende powered the Penn State offense in the win against USC with a team-high 25 kills on .525 hitting, adding five blocks and four digs, overcoming a slow start in Friday's matchup against the Bruins.
"He came back and looked to be a little better against USC and as the match wore on, his confidence just grew exponentially and all of the sudden at the end of that match he was taking some big time swings, I think Cal Mende has the potential to become a monster on the right side for us," Pavlik said.
3. Veteran Leaders
Senior Chris Nugent and fifth-year redshirt senior Matt Callaway have returned for their final season in the Blue and White, with both veterans leading the way with championship experience throughout the years. Nugent, who earned All-America honorable mention honors last year had double figure kills in both matches last weekend, including 22 kills against USC. Callaway tied for first on the team with five blocks against the Trojans. For Pavlik though, their experience and leadership is just as important as the on court contributions.
"The leadership has been outstanding," Pavlik said. "Nugent has become more a more vocal leader and Callaway has really just thrown himself into his fifth year," Pavlik said. "Matt has also put up some of the best numbers he has ever put up in the fall for us and we're looking for that to continue."
Last year, Penn State's 2016 season came to a close earlier than anticipated. This year, Pavlik noted that the approach to success in 2017 will begin with a commitment to getting better each day in the the training gym.
"One of the other things I think they have to understand is how does this team compete, what's their personality going to be like, how do you take the strengths that they have and make it all work, and the training gym is the lab where all of that happens and I like what we've seen so far from this group from top to bottom," Pavlik said.
5. Previewing the EIVA
With each passing year the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (EIVA) has only grown stronger. With a variety of challenges awaiting the Nittany Lions in just about every conference match, that's something that has Pavlik very pleased with how the league has come along and how it will prepare the Nittany Lions for a chance at the NCAA Tournament.
"I think there's a certain pride that our guys have that says we've got to be ready for our conference matches because that's the road to the NCAA's for us," Pavlik said.
The Nittany Lions will begin conference play Friday, Feb. 3, hosting Saint Francis (Pa.), before hitting the road for a three-game stretch, which also wraps up on the road against the Red Flash Friday, Feb. 14.More from Pavlik on the EIVA below.