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Smith Settled in at New Role

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By Jack Milewski, GoPSUSports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Setter is arguably one of the most important positions on a volleyball team. As a sort of floor general, if all goes according to plan, a setter should touch the ball on every offensive attack and almost never leave the court. Often times when an injury strikes, replacing the setter is a difficult task.

That has been far from the case for Penn State this season. Amidst another strong year with Mark Pavlik at the helm, the Nittany Lions have put together their fair share of lineup combinations. Some have been voluntary, some involuntary, but every step of the way the team has responded, opting to take changes in stride.

Two weeks ago when Luke Braswell, the team's starting setter for most of the year, was sidelined with an injury, freshman Nathan Smith stepped in and didn't miss a beat. In Braswell's absence, Smith has led the Nittany Lions to a 3-2 record, with no win bigger than last Tuesday's upset against top-ranked Ohio State. 

"It's weird because that win doesn't do anything for us in the standings, but it is such a big confidence boost," Smith said. "It really gave our whole team and myself especially a good feeling going into the weekend and you could tell we played with some confidence there too."

Smith carried the Nittany Lions into a weekend that Pavlik called one of the most important in recent history. Penn State did not disappoint, with Smith guiding the Nittany Lions to back-to-back weekend wins against Princeton and NJIT.

"You could tell that he was certainly dealing with some freshman nerves," Pavlik said. "What is great about Nathan is that he is always able to bounce back quickly. He is a very fast learner and when he learns something he doesn't forget about it." 

Smith's intelligence is evident on the court, but also off the court as well. The freshman science major is a member of Schreyer Honors College excelling just as much off the court. 

"That is probably what is most impressive about Nathan," Pavlik said. "Not only are we asking a lot from him on the court, but a lot has been asked of him off the court as well, and he is delivering in both aspects." 

Smith has delivered in a stretch of the season when the Nittany Lions have needed it the most. The weekend series against Princeton and NJIT was crucial in terms of the finality of the EIVA standings. True to form, Smith was able to guide the team through some rough moments and emerge with two wins, widening Penn State's lead at the top of the EIVA standings.

"We knew they were going to be a couple of tough games going in to them and we were ready," Smith said. "It certainly wasn't easy at times but when we stick to our game and keep it simple we are at our best and that's what we did."

Moving forward the Nittany Lions have two upcoming matches that loom large in the standings as they take on Harvard and Sacred Heart this weekend. With another pair of wins, the Nittany Lions will move closer to securing the top ranking in the EIVA tournament.

"We just have to continue to have a good week of practice and keep improving on the little things," Smith said. 

"We like where we're at right now, but we also recognize that we still need to win games to get to where we want to be," Pavlik said. "For us, that means winning a couple of games on the road this weekend and making things easier for ourselves the rest of the way."

Veterans Power Lions in Key Conference Weekend

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9772195.jpegBy Arielle Sargent, GoPSUSports.com

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - In an EIVA regular season weekend as critical as Penn State head coach Mark Pavlik can remember, the No. 13 Nittany Lions put on a gritty performance to emerge with a four set win against NJIT Saturday evening at Rec Hall.

"I think this capped off a pretty successful weekend for us," Pavlik said. "If we would have stumbled and gone the other way, it would have really tightened things up and its given us some breathing room right now."

Following a thrilling five-set victory against Princeton Friday night, the pair of wins widened the Penn State lead in the EIVA standings, with the Nittany Lions currently owning a two-match advantage in a title race that could shake out any number of ways with four of a remaining seven league teams all with six conference wins.

The Highlanders came out swinging in the first set, maintaining control through the midpoint of the opening frame before using a 3-1 streak to pull ahead by as many as four, 19-15, prompting Penn State to call its first timeout of the evening.

The Nittany Lions regrouped with back-to-back kills from Adian Albrecht. NJIT answered with another 3-1 spurt, as a Nittany Lion miscue prompted Penn State's final timeout before the Highlanders finished off the set, 24-21.

Both teams battled point-for-point in the second set before Cal Mende slammed a kill and paired up Albrecht and Matt Callaway for a triple block to break open a 9-all tie and give the Nittany Lions their largest lead of the stanza, 11-9. Penn State struggled to settle into a rhythm though as the Highlanders came right back to keep the set locked up. Tied at 18-18, NJIT capitalized on three consecutive Nittany Lion errors to jump ahead by three, 21-18.

Penn State was hardly finished though, as Mende followed an NJIT service error with a crucial kill to spark a 4-0 stretch that lifted the Nittany Lions ahead by one, 22-21. The Highlanders cut off the streak with a kill to tie the score, 22-22, but Penn State responded with a 3-1 stretch capped off by another triple block to secure a 25-23 win to tie the match at 1-1 heading into the intermission. 

Penn State built its lead to as many as five, 15-10, by the midpoint of the third set and didn't look back, knocking off NJIT 25-21 in sets three and four to wrap up the victory.

"I think once we got aggressive in this game, in game two, that's when things started to happen for us," Pavlik said.

Mende finished tied for first on the team with 13 kills, stuffing the stat sheet with six kills in the second set alone.

"I thought there was a stretch in there where Cal didn't have great balls to swing at and still managed to do some things and then Nathan found the shape that he needs to give Cal and when you give Cal that shape, he's going to put the ball away," Pavlik said. "I think that he worked through some of the tough spots and I think Nathan found him when we needed him and shaped the set the way we needed it shaped."

It was Penn State's veteran leaders though who balanced out the offense, with Albrecht finishing with 13 kills and a team-high four blocks, just ahead of senior Chris Nugent, who totaled 12 kills on .407 hitting with six digs. Callaway added eight kills on .800 hitting. Nugent and Albrecht also registered double figure kills in the win against Princeton, with Callaway leading the blocking unit with six total blocks.

"They've seen that movie before and it's a huge advantage," Pavlik said reflecting on the contributions of his upperclassmen leaders. "It's something where they know three points here, two points there, it really doesn't matter if you keep playing the game the way it needs to be played. I think there is something to be said for the seniors who not only have a settling effect, but also the opposite when they can look at the younger guys and say, follow me, we're winning this."

Along with experience and leadership, not to be underrated is the performance from Nathan Smith, Penn State's freshmen setter first thrust into the lineup on the road at Loyola last weekend after an injury sidelined Luke Braswell. Upon returning home from the road, Smith directed the Nittany Lion offense to wins in back-to-back five-setters against top-ranked Ohio State and Princeton before closing out the weekend with the victory against NJIT.

"I thought Nathan did a yeoman's job this weekend, winning a five-gamer and being in a tight four-gamer," Pavlik said. 

Reaching his stride with each passing match, Smith has proved nothing short of pivotal for the Nittany Lions headed into the final stretch of EIVA play.

"I think Nathan's really settled in the last couple of games," Albrecht said. "He's feeling more confident, he's talking more."

Penn State will look to keep its momentum alive on the road next week in yet another key weekend of conference matchups.

"Next week has become the second most important EIVA weekend that I can remember," Pavlik said. "You have to take care of business against Sacred Heart and Harvard."

Passers Shine as Lions Outlast Buckeyes

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By Jack Milewski, GoPSUSports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State has played with resiliency and resolve all season long amidst injuries and adversity. They have gutted out wins and relied on nearly everyone in the lineup to provide a spark. On Tuesday night, the Nittany Lions did just that, against the number one team in the nation. 

The Nittany Lions downed the Buckeyes in a five set instant classic that showed the potential of the team's young talent, coupled with the experience of the upperclassmen. In what was one of, if not the finest performance from Penn State on the season, the Nittany Lions rode wave of momentum after wave of momentum to their biggest victory of the season thus far.

"I think this match was one going into it that we thought we would need a concerted sustained focus throughout if we were going to win," head coach Mark Pavlik said. "I think everyone outside of our locker room looked at this and thought Ohio State would take care of business. We're really proud of these guys."

With numerous standout performances, Chris Nugent totaled 19 kills hitting .515, while Nathan Smith dished out 39 assists, 10 digs and four blocks. Aidan Albrecht added 14 kills, seven digs and a pair of blocks. However, the performance that was probably the most instrumental in Penn State's victory isn't one that shows up in a column on the stat sheet, and not produced by just one individual. 

"I think our passers were our unsung heroes in this contest," Pavlik said. "Anytime you can hold a team like this to around a service ace per game, you're doing something really well."

"We knew that we would have to pass well throughout the entire game," Nugent added. "Save for a couple of missed opportunities, I thought we had one of our better games in that department."

The seven service aces that Ohio State recorded were their third lowest total in a match this season and their lowest all season in a match that lasted four sets of longer. Not only were the Penn State Nittany Lions on the ball with their passing, but their defensive effort as a whole also stood out. 

"We just stuck together, that was the bottom line," Nugent said. "Everyone was communicating well and quite honestly I think a lot of the times it comes down to energy and we just had great energy all night."

The energy was palpable in Rec Hall Tuesday night, as is usually the case when the best team in the nation comes to town. Penn State energized the fans right out of the gate with a tremendous first set, taking the lead early and never looking back. Set two went the way of the visitors, but set three was right back to the Nittany Lions, who seemed to never waver under the spotlight.

"We certainly had our bumps at the beginning of the match," Smith said. "That comes with playing with a lineup that you haven't seen in a match yet, but once the third set rolled around we felt like we found a nice rhythm." 

Penn State is hoping the rhythm continues into the second half of EIVA play as the Nittany Lions currently sit atop the standings. Penn State will host NJIT and Princeton in Rec Hall this upcoming Friday and Saturday, marking the first conference matches the team will have played since February 25th. 

"This is certainly a shot in the arm for us," Jalen Penrose said. "Anytime you can take down the best team in the nation it's a nice feeling. We just have to stay focused because we have two good opponents coming into our gym this weekend. 

"At the end of the day, this is a feel good match for us," Pavlik said. "It's a great win, but it doesn't move us up in any standings. We will see how the team responds but were hoping that we can use it as a springboard match for the last three weekends of the season."

Lions Focused on Buckeyes

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By Jack Milewski, GoPSUSports.com student staff writer


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State Nittany Lions will embark on yet another busy week in their 2017 season, set to take on Ohio State, NJIT and Princeton all within the next five days. Penn State has dealt with adversity in terms of injury and illness all season long, but the team still sits in a solid position heading into the second half of EIVA play. 


"We like where we're at," head coach Mark Pavlik said. "We sit a game ahead of both NJIT and Princeton, so these next couple games are going to be very big." 


Penn State fell to both Lewis and Loyola Chicago this past weekend, but there were still lots of positives during the weekend, most notably the fact that the Nittany Lions never looked like a team that had given up on the games. 


"We loved the response from our guys in both games," Pavlik said. "Obviously it's not the results that we wanted, but we fought in both games and were right there."


 The matchup tomorrow against Ohio State is one that the Nittany Lions have seen already this season. The Buckeyes are the defending national champions and ranked atop the AVCA poll. Though it is an out of conference match, it is still a good tune up for Penn State heading into their continuation of EIVA play. 


"We know that Ohio State is a good team and we are excited for the challenge," Pavlik said. "It is always a good opportunity to see where we stack up against one of the top programs in the nation." 


Penn State and Ohio State are set for a Tuesday, March 28 matchup with first serve set for 7 p.m. at Rec Hall.

Callaway Among Lion Leaders

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By Jack Milewski, GoPSUSports.com

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Fifth year seniors in sports are unique in many ways. The experience they provide from years on the team both on and off the court are invaluable to everyone involved on the team. For Penn State men's volleyball, Matt Callaway is that type of Nittany Lion. 

Callaway started his Penn State career with a bit of adversity, battling injuries through his first couple of seasons on the team. Still, he made steady progress, rising to the challenges and finding ways to excel in his sophomore season.

"My freshman year was tough because of those injuries," Callaway said. "I think that the year after that I started to really grow and I was lucky to play with one of the best players in the world in Aaron Russell for a couple of years, that really helped as well. It's hard to sum up the journey in a couple of sentences but it has certainly been an amazing one."

Head coach Mark Pavlik has also noted Callaway's growth. Pavlik says the fifth-year middle has worked extremely hard to gain more power on his swings and that through all of his time playing at Penn State, he has become one of the smartest players on the team. What Pavlik says he has noticed most about Callaway this season is his continued improvement in blocking. 

"I think his blocking has been the best it ever has this season," Pavlik said. "That might be the toughest thing to be excellent at as a middle, but Matt has continued to improve and his footwork is better than ever this season." 

In a season of so much adversity for the Nittany Lions, the middles have been steady and healthy all season long. Kevin Gear and Callaway have been the main contributors in the middle, providing stability all season long for a team that has had to weather ups and downs.

"It's definitely tough as a middle, I wont lie about that," Callaway said. "As a middle, you have to split time and I am lucky to do that with another great middle in Kevin. At the same time, you wish you could do more, especially with all the injuries we have had this season, but we know we just have to continue to do our jobs." 

As much as the growth on the court has been a major part of Callaway's career at Penn State, it is his growth as a leader that is equally as impressive. For Pavlik, he has certainly seen Callaway take on an added role, calling him a him a further extension of the team.

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"I think Matt is a great leader," Pavlik said. "He is certainly a mix of a vocal leader as well as a leader by example. This is his second season as captain and even between the two of those, you have seen a good amount of growth from him."

Last season, Callaway was captain along with fellow middle Matt Seifert. Seifert, who graduated last spring, took on many of the leadership roles, and as Callaway says, last year was a good learning experience.

"I really let Seif lead more and tried to look at what he did that made him such a good captain," Callaway said. "For me it was both about helping my team as a captain and learning how I could be a better one at the same time. It has certainly helped this season because there have been a lot of tough moments and we have all had to battle through them. I've tried to be as vocal as I can in certain situations when I feel like I can help the team."

In his final season at Penn State, Callaway will cross off another "last" on his list this upcoming weekend when the team heads to Lewis and Loyola Chicago. Both schools are located roughly an hour away from Callaway's hometown, Wheaton, Illinois, making this the last road trip home for the senior. 

"It's always fun to go home and play there," Callaway said. "I know a lot of guys on the teams we will play, just from high school and club. It's fun to compete against them and also it's always nice to see family." 

The road trip has added meaning for Callaway, but is still big for the Nittany Lions. The Nittany Lions are currently slated No. 13 in the AVCA rankings, looking to continue their stretch of successful nononference play. Both matches at Lewis and Loyola are set for 7 p.m. ET.

Nugent Returns, Penn State Balance Shines

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By Jack Milewski, GoPSUSports.com

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Chris Nugent returned to the lineup and Penn State men's volleyball didn't skip a beat. The Nittany Lions downed Cal Baptist in four sets to secure their 13th win of the season, improving to 2-1 in the nonconference slate.

Once again, Penn State showed its balance, as four Nittany Lions recorded double digit kills. Nugent led the group with 16, Calvin Mende chipped in 13, while Aiden Albrecht added 11 and Kevin Gear recorded 10.

"I though tonight we were tested in two ways, coming back from two nights off and getting [Nugent] back in the lineup," Pavlik said. "I thought it would have been easy for us in games three four to just roll over, but we kept fighting and pushing and got the result we wanted."

Sidelined for more than three weeks, Nugent returned to the court at Rec Hall with a bang. Facing their fair share of adversity during the midpoint of the season, Penn State has opted to instead, rise to the occasion, embracing a next man up mentality. 

"For us it is just about being in a rhythm and I thought we were there all night," setter Luke Braswell said. "I thought all of our hitters did a great job and because of that we were able to get a good amount of looks." 

Not only did Nugent have an impressive performance in his return, but Gear continued to make an impact in the middle, recording a match high .500 hitting percentage to go along with four blocks. Gear has been an absolute force the past two weeks, not only defensively at the net, but also offensively in the middle. With the added attack support, Penn State has been able to push past opponents in different ways the last couple of matches.

The Nittany Lions showcased what Pavlik has been talking about all season long, their ability to bounce back from adversity and win tight sets. The first set, third set and fourth set were decided by two points and the Nittany Lions took two of three from Cal Baptist to win the match. 

"We kept battling and when their servers got hot, we didn't buckle," Nugent said. "It was a solid match for us and especially when the match got close, I think we played some of our better volleyball." 

The Nittany Lions will take on Lewis and Loyola Chicago next time out, hitting the road to begin its final stretch of nonconference action. Penn State faced both teams earlier in the season, beating Loyola in five before dropping a five setter the next night to Lewis. Both matches are set to begin at 7 p.m. ET.

"Both teams are playing well and I fully expect hostile arenas," Pavlik said. "We played them tough at our place and now we have to get on the plane and go to see them so it should be a fun one."

McMillan at Home at Penn State

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9102579.jpegBy Jack Milewski, GoPSUSports.com

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Associate head coach Colin McMillan describes his relationship with head coach Mark Pavlik as that of "an old married couple." Pavlik also likens the two of them to "a couple of old ladies." Either way you describe it, McMillan has served as a key component to the Penn State men's volleyball team for 10 years now. 

McMillan was recruited by Penn State, but spent his collegiate career at Ohio State, helping the Buckeyes to an NCAA runner up finish in 2000. A standout middle at Ohio State, he won a gold medal at the World University Games in Beijing with Team USA in 2001. Playing overseas from 2000-05, he was also the starting middle for the Besiktas Volleyball Club in Turkey.

With a variety of experiences playing at both the collegiate and pro level, it only made McMillan an intriguing prospect for Penn State when the assistant coaching position opened up.

"I knew Colin as a player and really respected what he did on the court," Pavlik said. "When he put his application in for the coaching position we really liked what he brought to the table in terms of all his experience. He had played under various coaches who used different styles so he was familiar with a lot of different volleyball. Knowing Colin and seeing his resume, I just kind of knew that he was the guy."

McMillan says that he started his coaching career with little coaching experience but believes that he was selected based on the fact that he could provide a wealth of knowledge.

"I knew that I didn't have as much coaching experience as some of the other candidates," McMillan said. "But I had a good relationship with Coach Pav and he saw something in me. I was very honored when I figured out I was selected."

McMillan began his tenure at Penn State as an assistant coach. He was tasked with coaching the blockers on the team as well as working with the middle hitters on offense as well. As a four time All-MIVA selection at middle blocker, McMillan was the perfect piece to anchor that aspect of Penn State's coaching staff. In his time at Penn State, he felt himself grow as a coach, but also personally as well. 

"In my time here I have gone from more of a player who was coaching kids to an actual coach as I have progressed in my career," McMillan said. "I have gotten married and had two kids during my time at Penn State. I absolutely love the area and love the community, the whole Penn State athletics community feels like a family to me and that's what I like the most about it." 

Through the 10 years that he has been part of the program, McMillan has been with many All-Americans, current international stars and even a national championship team. He has coached alongside Pavlik through all of those seasons and truly believes that as their relationship has grown, so to has their ability to coach together. 

"When I started it was still more of a player coach relationship between the two of us," McMillan said. "I was young and Pav had been here already for a good chunk of time so I was always listening to him and taking that in. Now as I've matured and grown and our relationship has a well, it is entirely different. We bounce ideas off of each other and coordinate on a lot of things. We even bicker sometimes but were like the old married couple and we make up right after." 

Pavlik sees a similar dynamic between the two colleagues, adding that McMillan, along with the other coach on staff, Ryan Walthall, are equals in terms of pull.

"We are all tugging on that preverbal rope just as much as the other person," Pavlik said. "I like to think that when we come into this office, we are all equal, each person's voice is respected just as much as the next and we use each other to help better the team. It's really fun to be able to come in to work with Colin and Ryan every single day."

For all the success that McMillan has had at Penn State it's also come in the form of guiding teams to nine EIVA championships as well as a national title during his time in Happy Valley. For McMillan, the most enjoyable part of his entire experience might not include a match at all though. Rather for him, it is what happens when the lights don't shine the brightest that sticks out the most. 

"The most fulfilling part of coaching for me has to be seeing that success in practice," McMillan said. "It's that sense when you can tell a player has figured it out or when you really start to feel a team gel that is probably the best part about this job. Then when you see the hard work come to fruition during the matches, that's just the bonus."

In August 2016, McMillan was promoted to associate head coach for the Nittany Lions, putting him at a very close second in command to Pavlik. For all his time at Penn State, Pavlik says that it is very much a deserved promotion.

"It basically means that Colin can step in and take over for me if it is ever needed," Pavlik said. "He can do that and it would be a seamless transition. He has earned that right and he has been a phenomenal coach for the past 10 years. What makes him so good is that he understands what he doesn't know and I think that is the best trait a coach can have because if you are willing to learn, then you will be all the better for it."

Likewise, for McMillan, he expressed his gratitude in moving from assistant to associate head coach but also highlighted that it is not only an honor, but also another opportunity to learn and grow as a coach.

"I want to continue to progress with my coaching," McMillan said. "I could certainly do that as an assistant coach, but there are certain responsibilities as an associate head coach that are unique to the job. It's all part of the learning process for me and to be able to continue that with out having to leave Penn State is really nice."

Though he has been around numerous Penn State teams, McMillan noted that this year, his first as the associate head coach, has been unique. The Nittany Lions currently sit at No. 13 in the national rankings and have made great strides since the beginning of the season. However recently they have been plagued by sickness and injury, both which have created unexpected situations for the team. Still, despite the adversity, Penn State has maintained its status as one of the teams to beat in collegiate volleyball. 

"I don't know if I've ever seen a team with as much turnover in the lineup as the one we have had this season," McMillan said. "Just because of everything that has happened we have had to make lineup changes and put people in different positions like something I haven't seen before. But even though it's been hard, I think that if we can get everyone healthy, our team will be better off for it because now everyone on the team is battled tested and has been on the court in big situations and that makes for a dangerous team come playoff time."

Penn State is still in the midst of an out of conference schedule before resuming the second half of their EIVA play. The Nittany Lions are currently sitting a half game ahead of Sacred Heart in the conference standings with six games left to play. Penn State is back on the court Friday night against Cal Baptist with first serve at 7 p.m. in Rec Hall.

Blocking Lifts Lions Past UCSB

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By Jack Milewski, GoPSUSports.com

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - To say Penn State's defense at the net Friday would be an understatement. Powered by a standout blocking unit from the Nittany Lions, Penn State totaled 19.5 blocks in a four set victory against UC Santa Barbara in a dominating defensive performance.

Penn State limited the No. 13 Gauchos to just a .135 hitting clip on the night, showing a dimension of their game that has flown under a little under the radar this season. Two Nittany Lions recorded double digit blocking totals with Kevin Gear leading the way with a career-high 11 blocks, marking his first double digit block performance. Aidan Albrecht followed right behind with 10 blocks, also a career-high mark for his first double figure blocking outing. 

"We just worked well as a team all night," Albrecht said. "Kevin played great and I felt pretty good at the net too. It was one of those nights where we clicked defensively."

Although the Nittany Lions gave away some opportunities at the service line, the Gauchos were never able to find a rhythm in the match, as the Nittany Lions remained steady at the net. With defense and blocking setting the tone instead, Penn State also capitalized on key points at the net in crucial situations.

"I thought we were really disciplined all around," Albrecht said. "We had a game plan early on and we were able to execute it. Our middles did a great job and our coach Colin McMillan was able to help us a lot tonight with schemes."

Cal Mende led the offense for the Nittany Lions, pouring in 15 kills for Penn State. Albrecht and Gear had 13 and 10 kills, respectively to bolster the attack. In their first game of a six match out of conference stretch for the Nittany Lions, Penn State looked like a team that is poised to make a run in the EIVA.

Pavlik noted that even though the matches are against four teams not representing the EIVA, Penn State can still gain a lot from the upcoming outings.

"We get a good chance to see how we stack up against some of the better competition from across the country," Pavlik said. "It is always nice to have teams like Stanford and Santa Barbara come to Rec Hall and play. Not only does it help grow the game of volleyball, but I think it really benefits both teams seeing some competition that they usually may not see."

With Nugent still sidelined, Penn State has continued to rely on a multitude of Nittany Lions to step up and help guide the team past its opponents. 

Last weekend it was Jalen Penrose, who stepped up with some offensive firepower. This week, was outstanding blocking from both Albrecht and Gear. Gear's Friday night performance marked an uptick in production for the redshirt junior, as he more than doubled his blocking total from the last two weeks in just the single outing.

Penn State will look to continue the momentum, welcoming No. 8 Stanford to Rec Hall Saturday. The Nittany Lions will look to capture back-to-back wins against ranked opponents for the first time this season hosting the Cardinal, who recently knocked off Lees McRae in four sets Friday.

Penrose, Nittany Lions Elevated by Competition

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By Jack Milewski, GoPSUSports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State men's volleyball has continued embracing its next man up mentality, as another new Nittany Lion has emerged in the face of adversity.

Right side Jalen Penrose played some of his best volleyball of the season, pushing the team, through two weekend wins. Replacing Calvin Mende midway through the George Mason match, Penrose earned a spot in the second matchup of the weekend.

It is this type of intersquad competition that has made the Nittany Lions, and Penrose in particular, successful on the court as of late.

Penrose has faced some challenging moments on the court this year, but Friday and Saturday last week, the redshirt junior was electric. Totaling 19 kills in two matches, he closed out the weekend with a hitting percentage close to .525. He also logged one of his most efficient games in his career at George Mason, totaling 11 kills on .714 hitting. 

"I think we all play better in hostile environments like we saw at Mason," Penrose said. "I love trying to quiet the crowd. We come together as a team even more when everyone is against us like that."

Penrose has always been one of the most athletically gifted Nittany Lions on the roster, however the last two matches are a sign of mental maturity that head coach Mark Pavlik has seen an improvement in. 

"I think Jalen is learning to play to his strengths but not over do it," Pavlik said. "He can hit the ball incredibly hard, but if he tries to do too much that's when he can get in trouble. This past weekend he played within himself and played some very smart volleyball."

With Mende at right side to start the season, Penrose has been on the sidelines in a bit of a different role. After such a stellar performance last weekend, the question becomes who gets the start. This kind of question prompts what Pavlik calls "friendly competition" in practice, something the team welcomes.

"We are all competitive guys," Penrose said. "We go at it in practice because you always want to be the player who is helping out on the court. I have no problem being the guy on the bench though if someone earns it over me. That's why we always compete because we want to make whoever is playing earn it."

For Pavlik, the next step for Penrose comes in the ability to sustain the successful level of play. Penrose has shown that he is capable of being an incredibly dynamic player, in fact, he has proven it. Pavlik said he wants that consistency element to be the next step in his development as a player.

"We really liked what we saw from Jalen, now we want to see that continue," Pavlik said. "It all starts in practice. What we see there usually translates over on to the court."

After a phenomenal weekend for Penrose and the rest of the Nittany Lions, Penn State will look to continue its winning ways against a few teams from across the country. Matchups against UC Santa Barbara and Stanford this weekend begin a six-match nonconference stretch for the Nittany Lions.

Despite the fact that the games do not impact the EIVA standings, Pavlik explained that the games are still very important.

"First of all it's a nice way to promote the game of volleyball by getting teams like that to come and play here," Pavlik said. "We can really use this games as a measuring stick to see what teams we will likely be up against in the tournament if we make it there."

Penn State hosts UC Santa Barbara Friday before welcoming Stanford Saturday at Rec Hall.

Smith Stepping Up for Nittany Lions

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By Jack Milewski, GoPSUSports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Adversity strikes all teams at certain times in the season. It can take different forms, be around for a long time or a short time and either minimally or prominently alter the course of a season.

In the case of Penn State men's volleyball, they have faced adversity the last couple weeks in the form of multiple injuries. Still, that has not stopped the team from forging forward and continuing their balanced play that they have exhibited for most of the season. The latest injury bug has placed standout outside Chris Nugent on the sidelines, but in his absence, Nittany Lions have continued to step up again and again.

Lee Smith has been one of those contributors has made an immediate impact, stepping in seamlessly for Nugent. Smith was in a rotation of role players last season, behind the likes of Nugent and Spencer Sauter in the lineup. However, this season Smith has been one of the go to hitters for Penn State and that role has magnified with Nugent out of the lineup.

"Obviously you never want to see a player like Chris get taken out of the lineup," Smith said. "But because of that we have had to have other players step up and fill his role. Myself and Aiden Albrecht have tried to do our best stepping up and I think that Aiden has done a really good job. I think for myself if I just play smart that is the best way that I can help the team."

Smith has stepped up big, leading the Nittany Lions this past weekend with 26 kills across two matches. On the season, Smith ranks third on the team in total kills with 105, but has played four less matches than Nugent who is the leading spiker. The production that Smith has shown this season highlights the growth he has exhibited throughout his Penn State career.

"He has really continued his upward trajectory throughout his time here," head coach Mark Pavlik said. "We have seen great growth from him and he is a very smart player so that growth is quick as well." 

With that growth, Smith has moved from being a player who comes off the bench to provide a spark or a different look, to a player who is a consistent and effective starter. Smith says he has embraced the role, not only on the court, but off the court as well.

"I think I have matured as a player and as a leader on the team," Smith said. "Now that I am usually getting a lot of swings in the games, I can see myself improving every game. I also feel much more comfortable being able to speak up and say something if I need to." 

Smith is known for being a jokester and having a light-hearted personality when it comes to his off the court actions. On the court he is fiery but also brings a calming sense to the team.

"I feel like I know what to say and when it's needed," Smith said. "When I'm on the court I like to try and calm everyone down if need be and just keep an even head all the time. I think as a player I never try to do too much and just keep it simple as best I can."

Smith is certainly providing a much needed spark and positive energy for the Nittany Lions at this juncture in the season. Despite the injuries they have sustained, Penn State is still in a solid position in the EIVA, sitting just one match behind the conference leaders. 

"Our goal is the same as it has been all season," Smith said. "Win the EIVA regular season so that we can host the EIVA championships and then we go from there."

Penn State is back in action returning to the road for a pair of weekend matches Friday and Saturday, taking on preseason EIVA favorite George Mason and Charleston (West Va.). Both matches are slated for 7 p.m. starts.  

"There is even more added importance to these games this weekend," Pavlik said. "We are expecting a hostile environment on Friday and even on Saturday, though Charleston doesn't have a win in the EIVA yet they are much improved from last year."

@GOPSUSPORTS

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