By Will Desautelle, GoPSUSports.com
student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State upended No. 15 Fort Wayne Saturday afternoon in the Rec Hall south gym to close out its nonconference portion of the schedule.
It was a match that saw Fort Wayne push Penn State to its limit, but the Nittany Lions rallied from behind in a critical third-set victory to shift the momentum and close out the match a set later.
Amid some serving some miscues Saturday, it wasn't enough to prevent Penn State from coming away with a victory.
"I thought late in game two and into game three we started to match their intensity and I thought we started to execute our game pretty well," head coach Mark Pavlik said.
For the second night in a row though, Penn State showed some tremendous grit, particularly in sets one and three. The Nittany Lions trailed late in both of these frames but battled all the way back to win in extra points behind some tough blocking and defense.
"The teams in the past I've been on at Penn State haven't quite had the mental toughness that we've had and I think it just shows a lot about this team and how fast we can learn," outside hitter Matt McLaren said.
McLaren also had the hot hand on the outside for Penn State, finishing with 13 kills and two service aces. With the departure of last season's leading outside hitter, Chris Nugent, McLaren has taken on a much larger role and has blossomed into a terrific offensive option for the Nittany Lions this season.
"It's nice because he's reliable," Clemens said. "You can always bet on him to pass the ball, get a good swing on it, or give you a second contact if needed. It's nice to have someone like that on the court."
In sparking momentum, Pavlik made numerous adjustments throughout the match. One of those adjustments came in inserting outside hitter Lee Smith into the lineup in set number two for Aidan Albrecht, who was hitting just .143 in the match and struggled with his passing. Smith, who has not seen much time this season coming off an injury, finished with four kills and hit .500 for the match.
"We've got some depth on the team," Pavlik said. "Every one of these guys will tell you that competition exists at their positions. Lee came off the bench and settled down our passing and I think from then on he really helped funnel the energy and intensity into the group."
For Lee, the process of getting back to 100 percent hasn't exactly been easy, but one he's approaching with a day-by-day mindset.
"It was a struggle in the fall to get back to playing and then from there, it was kind of just day by day to build my confidence and my skills," Smith said. "I'm still not where I want to be exactly so each day I'm just taking it day by day and getting better."
Pavlik also interestingly decided to use both of his liberos, alternating both Royce Clemens and Declan Pierce each point beginning in set three.
"Royce's strength is passing the ball - that's what we needed and he gave us that," Pavlik said. "Declan's been digging some hard-hit balls in practice and it gives us an opportunity to really measure and take a look at the depth we have."
The action-packed third set victory propelled the Nittany Lions to a dominant victory in the fourth set to seal the deal. Their blocking really began to take control of the match at that point, as they finished with 13 blocks as a team and held Fort Wayne to a .048 hitting percentage in the final set.
"We were just finally executing," Smith said. "They run that fast tempo ball from pin to pin, so once we started to figure it out, we were pretty much shutting them down."
Jalen Penrose also had another big night from the right side, adding a team-high 15 kills (.333 hitting percentage) and five blocks. Penn State's middles, Kevin Gear (.500 hitting percentage) and Jason Donorovich, (.412 hitting percentage) combined for 21 kills and 11 blocks in a huge performance.
"Kevin is just a steady head. You can always count on him to really play his game," Smith said. "And then Jason at the end was really great to see him stepping into that second middle slot and really just showing what he can do."
Penn State improves to to 5-2 on the year with the win, set to begin EIVA play with a road trip to Saint Francis next Saturday. First serve is scheduled for 7 p.m.