By Will Desautelle, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State handed George Mason its first EIVA loss this season in a five-set thriller last Saturday. The Nittany Lions did so without their star right side hitter Calvin Mende, but more intriguing was the libero situation.
Incumbent starter Royce Clemens did not travel with the team over the weekend. Redshirt freshman Declan Pierce is Clemens' backup, but in a critical weekend, head coach mark Pavlik made arguably his most interesting lineup change of the season - starting Lee Smith at libero.
Smith, who is listed as an outside hitter, might have the best ball control on the team, according to Pavlik, but plugging him in at libero was highly unexpected for anyone outside of the Penn State coaches' room. The unforeseen switch paid off, as Smith helped anchor a defense on the way to two big wins over the weekend for Penn State.
"We know we were going to be playing in front of a big crowd and [Smith] has the experience and has been in those matches," Pavlik said. "He has the ball control skills to do it, and he did a really, really good job at libero for us."
While the move came as a shock to many, Pavlik added that he has experimented with Smith at libero plenty of times during practices throughout Smith's career.
"You look at those situations and if we get stuck with a libero situation, how would we handle it and [Smith] has just had more game experience than [Pierce] has," Pavlik said. "Smith has passed with these guys side by side and I think there was a comfort level that existed there that allowed it to pay off for us."
Smith suffered a knee injury in the middle of last season. Although he is physically 100 percent, he has inherited a lesser role at outside this season behind the likes of Aidan Albrecht and Matt McLaren. However, Pavlik praised the way he has handled the situation.
"There's no question his mindset is that the team comes first. One of the things that is [Smith's] strength is that you define a role for him and he embraces it," Pavlik said.
Pavlik pointed to last week's match against Harvard as an example. Smith started on the outside for Albrecht, who did not travel with the team and was benched in favor of Frank Melvin after hitting -.071 through two sets. Smith was enthusiastically supportive on the bench though, giving Melvin feedback while he was on the court.
"You would have never been able to tell that he started and got benched," Pavlik said. "At one point he even said 'I just want to win.'"
Pavlik believes Smith is physically back to where he was before the knee injury and maybe even a little better.
"He might be our best pin blocker and ball control has always been a strength of his," Pavlik said. "What I like about him is defensively, he's better at digging balls that are hit with some physicality and some heat than he's ever been, and he proved that this weekend."
Penn State will now enter the final weekend of the regular season with an opportunity to head toward the EIVA Championships with some momentum. The Nittany Lions will take on Princeton Friday night and NJIT the following evening. Princeton, who beat the Nittany Lions at Princeton in five sets earlier this season, is battling for the fourth and final spot in the EIVA playoffs this weekend."I think for us we're in a playoff type setting this week," Pavlik said. "It's going to be a great continuation of the last two weekends because after we came back from the [bye week] we basically told the guys they're in playoff mode."