Desautelle, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK - No. 9 Penn State is 5-2, on the year, set to begin EIVA play this weekend with a match on the road at Saint Francis Saturday night. The Nittany Lions were the league champions last season, but the Red Flash finished just one game behind them.
Due to injuries, Penn State head coach Mark Pavlik has had to lean on other Nittany Lions for offensive production. Stepping up has been redshirt junior outside hitter, Matt McLaren, who is currently the third leading hitter for the Nittany Lions.
Last weekend, Ball State took Penn State all the way to five sets, while Fort Wayne provided a challenging four-set match the next day. After the match Saturday, McLaren said this Penn State team is mentally tougher than the Nittany Lion teams he has played for in the past.
"I think a big thing we've been focusing on this year is getting better at learning," McLaren said. "Being better at learning not just the skills, but learning how pressure affects our team and how we can deal with that in better ways on the court."
Over the last year, McLaren noted the team has also had several sessions with sports psychologists to sharpen everyone's mental aspects of the game and so far, it has paid dividends.
Pavlik agreed, pointing out that there is something to be said for this group of individuals having experienced many different types of situations on the court throughout their careers.
"There's a confidence that starts to build and a comfort level that starts to build," Pavlik said. "I think we're in the process of learning and embracing what our personality has become and I kind of like it. We're a little bit more resilient than we were in the past and I tend to agree with [McLaren]."
McLaren also pointed to this year's team returning the majority of its key contributors from last year, meaning another year with the same guys has brought them closer together, allowing them to learn more about playing together.
Following the departure of senior outside hitter Chris Nugent, McLaren has also seen an increased role quickly ascending to one of Penn State's most reliable offensive options.
At certain points during last Saturday's game, Pavlik got the sense that McLaren was in full control.
"You just got the sense that he was going to put us on his back," Pavlik said. "I really like the way that he's starting to let the game come to him. I think he's getting more and more comfortable with his ability to do what he does in his own way."
"My confidence has grown and I think it's because of the team that's around me," McLaren said. "I think I've been developing just by just practicing and doing the same stuff I did last year, while looking up to other guys to figure out what to do and make sure I'm doing all the right things."
As much as McLaren has blossomed into a primary offensive option for Penn State, he thinks his biggest area of improvement has been in his passing.
"I'm getting a lot more quality reps this year," McLaren said. "It's always been a focus for me, but this year it's a huge focus because that's the player that I think the team needs me to be."
McLaren and the Nittany Lions set a goal in the offseason to go undefeated in the EIVA this year and come Saturday at Saint Francis, Penn State will meet its first obstacle in the quest to achieve that feat.