UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It was just the type of bounce back win Penn State men's volleyball needed, as the Nittany Lions defeated NJIT in four sets to close out the regular season.
On senior night in Rec Hall, Penn State honored the contributions of its senior class in a special pre-match ceremony, but there was hardly time for emotions to get in the way.
From first serve, NJIT moved out to an early lead, before the Nittany Lions battled back with quick 3-0 strike to arrive within one at the midpoint of the frame, 16-15. Penn State fought off three NJIT set point attempts, but it was the Highlanders who ultimately took the opening set, 25-21, to take a 1-0 lead in the match.
"In that first half of the first set, we were super frantic," Kevin Gear said. "We made a lot of unforced errors on our side and kind of settled in toward the end of that set."
With Penn State trailing by three in the second set following an NJIT service error, the Nittany Lions took off on a 6-0 run to pull ahead by two, 12-10.
It was Gear's timely ace in the middle of the surge that tied the score, 10-10, as Penn State stepped up pressure from the service line to force the Highlanders out of system frequently.
"At one point I looked down on my chart and on Kev's serve we were scoring 12 points," Penn State head coach Mark Pavlik said. "They made about seven unforced hitting errors and most of those came because the set was coming from 20 feet out or so. Our block did a good job of getting in front of them too."
Penn State flipped the script to earn a 25-21 win in the second set, punctuated by a kill from Aidan Albrecht.
"I think we just needed to relax a little bit," Albrecht said reflecting on the second set turning point. "We were trying to do a lot of things out of character and we just have to keep believing in our strengths and settling in."
For Pavlik, there was hardly reason to be concerned, likening the early serving to a golfer trying to perfect a swing.
"These guys spend a lot of time serving," Pavlik said. "Hopefully at this point in the season, it's going to be a big weapon for us if we can do that like we did last week against [George] Mason, and certainly in the latter half of games two, three and four today."
The Nittany Lions were nothing short of settled in out of the intermission, as Gear pulled Penn State ahead 7-5 in the third set with a dominant solo stuff, opening up a 5-3 run that caused NJIT to call a timeout.
It was Albrecht's 11th kill of the night that secured the third set win, giving the Nittany Lions a 2-1 lead in the match that they wouldn't relinquish.
Albrecht finished with a match-high 14 kills to lead the Nittany Lions, while Gear put away six kills on six perfect swings to go along with two blocks.
More than the final score though is the legacy Penn State's senior trio will leave behind, one that Pavlik noted the casual fan outside the program will never know.
"I think they have taken to heart that one of the most important things about sustainable success is building a strong culture," Pavlik said. "They were right in the middle of demanding that it happened with this program and making sure everyone was on the same page with it."
From a quiet leader in the making to success in the classroom, and the flexibility to step into any role on the court, Pavlik praised each individual senior for his unique impact.
"Aidan has done everything we have ever asked of him," Pavlik said. "He has played just about every position. I was thinking about letting him set for Luke [Braswell] tonight to round that off," Pavlik joked.
Emotions aside though, there's still more volleyball to be played as Penn State turns its attention toward the upcoming EIVA Championship. A bid to the NCAA Tournament is on the line as the Nittany Lions open the EIVA Championship weekend Thursday, April 19th at George Mason.
"I think we turned the corner and now we're on the right foot moving forward and we can have a good week of practice to prepare for playoffs," Gear said.