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Penn State Looking Toward California Challenge

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By Will Desautelle, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State is 2-0 to start the 2018 volleyball season, with victories coming against Mount Olive and Alderson Broaddus last weekend at home.

This week, a much more daunting pair of games lies ahead, as head coach Mark Pavlik and company will be in Los Angeles, California to take on UCLA Thursday night and USC Saturday afternoon.

With two matches already under their belts, the Nittany Lions have a lot to be excited about looking toward the road trip, but a few things they'll need to get sorted to find continued success.

The Nittany Lions came out a bit flat to open their season and subsequently dropped their opening set to Mount Olive, but that was the only set they would lose the entire weekend.

They were lights out offensively, combining to hit higher than .500 as a team during the two matches. Despite it being early in the season, Penn State did not appear to have much rust on this end of the court.

"The fact that we hit .500 last weekend tells me we didn't hit a ton of balls out of bounds," Pavlik said. "Most of our hitting errors were the result of their block, which I like."

Pavlik attributed much of the offensive success over the weekend to the play of setter and team captain Luke Braswell, who combined for 69 assists in the two games, also earning EIVA Player of the Week honors. 

"I think Luke did a good job of putting the ball in spots where the hitters need it," Pavlik said. "It didn't look like we were trying to find our way offensively, so that was encouraging to me." 

One of the areas of concern, however, was from behind the service line, where the Nittany Lions combined for 27 service errors in their first two matches. Although, most of these errors came in the first set of both matches, Pavlik felt the Nittany Lions settled down nicely following the opening set of both contests.

"I think the areas of concern are the first two games of both matches that it takes a while for us to get in a serving rhythm," Pavlik said. "I've got to find a way to make sure as the year goes on that we're in our serving rhythm when that first game starts."

Pavlik also believes this weekend will be a big test for Penn State's blocking, with a distinct advantage in size and athleticism in the opening two matches of the season.

The biggest question he will have going into this weekend is how long can they play clean fundamental volleyball against two outstanding teams, especially when looking closer at the upcoming opponents.

UCLA will enter Thursday's match as the second-ranked team in the country and will have an advantage on its home court at Pauley Pavilion.

The Bruins are arguably the top serving team in the nation, ranking second nationally with 2.47 aces per set. Like Penn State, they have also started the season strong offensively, ranking sixth in hitting percentage. 

"They're going to execute, execute, execute and when you don't execute, they're going to take advantage of that and they'll score points," Pavlik said.

UCLA is led by two-time All-American outside hitter Jake Arnitz and middle blocker Daenan Gyimah, who reportedly can touch more than 12 feet.

"He is more than a handful to even slow down," Pavlik said. "Their outsides also do some really good things with the ball. They'll play really good volleyball and just wait for you to break down and once they get that crack they're going to score."

USC, on the other hand, is currently the 12th-ranked team in the country despite being one of the younger squads in Division I volleyball.

Pavlik's early focus on the Trojans will be to limit freshman middle Sam Lewis, who is hitting a remarkable .625 from the floor to open the season.

"They're going to figure out how to be good volleyball players," Pavlik said. "[Head coach] Jeff Nygaard will have them ready to compete and they're just going to get better and better throughout the year. It will be an interesting matchup Saturday morning."

Both teams will provide a tough early season test for Penn State, which will prove to be an early indicator of where it stands as a team before heading into conference play.

"Winning is the world's greatest anesthetic - nothing is wrong when you win and that's as far from the truth as everything is wrong when you lose," Pavlik said. "Every weekend is a test. How well we prepare for them is really the question that we have."

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