COLUMBUS, Ohio - Penn State's 2017 season officially came to a close in the NCAA Opening Round on the road at St. John Arena. Although uncomfortably reflective of season dotted with highs and lows, the fifth-seeded Nittany Lions were once again resilient, but ultimately came up short in a five-set loss to fourth-seeded Hawaii.
In an opening set that featured 12 ties and four lead changes, the Nittany Lions and the Rainbow Warriors set the tone early, beginning the back-and-forth battle with run after run.
As Penn State head coach Mark Pavlik mentioned just last week though, the game of volleyball is all about momentum and come Tuesday evening, Penn State happened to find itself on the wrong side of the momentum swing.
With the Nittany lions owning a four-point lead in set one, 10-6, the Rainbow Warriors battled back with a 5-0 run to take over a one-point lead, 11-10, causing Penn State to call a timeout.
Kevin Gear came out of the break with a kill to halt the streak, sparking a 7-3 stretch that sent Penn State ahead with a comfortable cushion, 17-14, this time forcing Hawaii to call timeout. The Nittany Lions forged ahead despite pressure from the Rainbow Warriors, arriving at 23-23, which was nearly set point for the Nittany Lions before an overruled touch call. Penn State quickly regrouped, closing out the set 25-23 off a stuff block from Matt Callaway and Cal Mende.
Trailing by as many as five in the second set 12-7, Penn State called its first timeout of the frame. Shifting the momentum once again, the Nittany Lions rallied out of the break, scoring four straight capped by a Chris Nugent kill to arrive within one, 12-11, prompting Hawaii to call a timeout.
Gear ripped a kill off the overpass out of the break to open a 10-8 stretch that put Penn State in solid position to pull ahead 2-0 in the match, leading 22-19. The Nittany Lions couldn't shake the Rainbow Warriors though, as they climbed back to fend off a pair of set point attempts before securing a 27-25 win to the tie match, 1-1.
In yet another back-and-forth beginning, Penn State broke open a 9-all tie in the third set with a 7-3 run to take over a 15-12 advantage at the media timeout. Nugent and Mende quickly combined for back-to-back kills out of the break to begin a streaky stretch that saw the Nittany Lions reload to build a five-point lead, 21-16, forcing Hawaii's final timeout of the stanza. Penn State had no trouble cruising to a 25-17 win to take a 2-1 lead in the match at the intermission.
A different team emerged from the locker room though, one oddly similar to a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" conundrum that Pavlik noted has challenged his relatively young squad throughout the season.
"Games one, two and three we were right there doing everything we wanted and our first contacts kept us in there," Pavlik said. "Games four and five, all of the sudden the shrapnel exploded. There was no real consistency, we couldn't run the offense that we were running."
Imposing physicality and athleticism, the Rainbow Warriors forced the Nittany Lions into two-pass situations that left the Nittany Lions seemingly rattled.
"I would say they just stayed clean," Gear said. "They were able to get some touches on some balls and turn them on us and we able to run off a couple of points. That's just something we couldn't sustain."
While the sting of the loss will certainly linger, there's no doubt that it's fueling the motivation for 2018. No greater is that motivation for standout true freshman Mende, a first team All-EIVA selection.
Earning AVCA All-America honorable mention distinction, Mende is one of just two true freshmen to earn to a selection to one of the three AVCA All-America teams (first team, second team, honorable mention) this year. His All-American caliber offensive firepower shined against Hawaii, as he finished with a team-high 18 kills, one of 15 double-digit performances on the year.
"I think he has been somebody who has been a constant all year," Pavlik said. "He has accumulated information, processed it, thrown out what was not necessary and kept was necessary to change his game and improve his game."
For Mende, the bright lights of the big stage were no reason to be concerned as he and redshirt freshman setter Luke Braswell stepped to the court for their first NCAA Tournament action.
"It was nice to be at Ohio State, we played here before so it's our third game here," Mende said. "Eventually, I think halfway through the first set, it was just another volleyball game."
Despite the usual growing pains of the season, Pavlik has nothing but pride for the endurance and perseverance and display this year, often coming by way of on-the-fly position changes due to injury, resulting in pleasant surprises and clutch contributions.
"We can't wait to get started again with the youth that we have coming back and have experienced some highs and lows, certainly tonight as one example but I'm so proud of this team for what they've fought through and the resiliency that they've showed through the whole year," Pavlik said. "Everything has the arrow pointed up and sometimes you have to experience a storm before you can really, really like the rainbow."