By Will Desautelle, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State defeated the Mount Olive Trojans in its first match of the season Friday night at Rec Hall, overcoming a first set loss to win in four sets (23-25, 25-19, 25-12, 25-14).
Head coach Mark Pavlik was impressed with the energy and confidence that the Trojans played with to start off the match, but the Nittany Lions did themselves no favors by committing eight service errors, which was the difference.
"We gave them 14 points, so they only had to score 11," Pavlik said. "Throughout my career we've seen this scenario happen where decided underdogs come in, but they are senior laden, and they've been here before. There was no real intimidation factor for them. The tighter it got the more they loosened up."
Penn State made key adjustments from that point, making a concerted effort to establish their two middles in Jalen Penrose and Kevin Gear. Penrose finished with 10 kills (.615 hitting percentage), two blocks, and four aces in his first career match as a middle blocker. Gear, on the other hand, was steady with eight kills (.462 hitting percentage) and three blocks.
"We passed well throughout the whole game, which allowed us to run the middle and make them commit on us a lot," Penrose said. "That opened it up for the pins to do what they do best and just swing away."
Penrose, a redshirt senior, was moved to middle blocker this season after spending his first four years in the program as a right side, looking remarkably comfortable for someone who has never played a match at that position.
"It's not an easy adjustment but having these guys behind me and having faith in me has been the backbone of my success," Penrose said. "There is not really any one thing that I like more about it than opposite, but it's my role and I'm just going to control what I can control and do the best I can."
Penrose's efficiency in the middle paved the way for sophomore right side hitter Calvin Mende, who finished with 15 kills and hit .667 for the match.
"Having the middles have such a dominant performance in the first game made their middles commit to ours earlier in the next set, which gave us one on one opportunities and just made it a lot simpler for us the rest of the way," Mende said.
Mende also commented on Penrose's performance in the middle and was impressed with the way he played in his debut.
"Off his first swing of the game, I don't know if I've seen someone hit that hard in a while," Mende said. "You see the immense potential there is and when he capitalizes on it, our whole team just gets filled with energy. To see him swing like that and serve like that is something that he really brings to the table."
"He was plus nine for the match," Pavlik said. "That's what we need from the guys on the court. Score more points for the guys wearing the same uniform you are and you're going to be pretty good. I think we were able to use the strengths that Jalen brings to the court and use them in more advantageous situations."
Outside of Penrose and Gear, one of the other critical differences in Penn State's turnaround after set one was the service line. After committing eight errors in the opening frame, the Nittany Lions served aggressively and were much cleaner from behind the line, compiling eight aces in the final three sets.
"We just got in a rhythm, starting doing our routines back there and doing what we do in practice," Mende said. "In the first set we had some jitters but after that we just settled into it."
"I don't think there was any type of panic or doubt, we just knew at some point we were going to start to roll," Pavlik said. "We kept the ball on the court more starting in game two and all of the sudden our size and athleticism started to work for us."
For Pavlik, his team still has a long way to go, despite taking a lot of positives from Friday night's opener. The good news though, is that they have time to get there.
The Nittany Lions will be back at Rec Hall on Saturday night for a match against Alderson-Broaddus at 7 p.m.