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Nugent Returns, Penn State Balance Shines

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By Jack Milewski,

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,

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,

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, 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, 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."

Nittany Lions Step Up in Split Weekend

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By Jack Milewski, student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State men's volleyball saw solid contributions from a pair of Nittany Lions who have been relatively quiet in this weekend's split against Harvard and Sacred Heart at Rec Hall.

The Nittany Lions took care of business against Harvard Friday night, sweeping the Crimson in straight sets behind an impressive team hitting percentage of .373. On Saturday, Penn State faced an EIVA setback against Sacred Heart, falling to the EIVA leading squad in four sets. 

Despite the sour ending to the weekend, the one constant bright spot was the consistency from Aidan Albrecht and Lee Smith, who both had double digit kills each match in the absence of Chris Nugent.

"With Chris out, Aidan has stepped into the roll now and I think it's huge for him and the team," Smith said. "It can really help our bench and the rest of us grow as a team and Aidan has done a great job." 

Over the weekend, Smith led all Nittany Lions with 26 kills and a hitting clip close to .300. Albrecht was not far behind as he totaled 24 kills with a similar hitting efficiency. With Nugent sidelined, both Smith and Albrecht are now the go-to forces on the outside for the Nittany Lions, having been given their opportunity this weekend.

"I think both of them played very well," head coach Mark Pavlik said. "We talk a lot on this team about how you always have to be ready to contribute and you see that with Chris out now."

On Friday, the Nittany Lions swept past Harvard, but it wasn't completely void of a few close call. Most notably, Penn State claimed a close 35-33 win the second set to claim a crucial two-set lead heading into the intermission. In a set featuring 15 times and six lead changes, the Nittany Lions came out on top in one of their craziest sets so far this season. 

"It was a lot of back and forth and both teams sided out really well," Albrecht said. "I think we got in to a little bit better of a rhythm at the end of the set."

The win against Harvard was a big one for Penn State, creating a good separation between them and the Crimson in the standings. Saturday presented a tougher challenge and a bit of adversity for Penn State as the Nittany Lions matched up against one of the top libero's in the country in Sacred Heart's Joshua Ayzenberg. Ayzenberg had 22 digs in just four sets and was the catalyst for the Pioneers.

Despite the loss, once again, Smith and Albrecht were both tremendous and the Nittany Lions will have plenty to build off of heading into a very important road trip to George Mason and Charleston (West Va.). 

"We have to focus on playing as a team and not playing for ourselves," setter Luke Braswell said after Saturday's contest. "Our focus should be Penn State and how we can be better as a team. If we bring our own energy, we can hang with anyone."

Penn State will travel to George Mason and Charleston this weekend for a pair of Friday-Saturday matchups. First serve for both matches is set for 7 p.m. 

Nittany Lion Depth Tested

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By Jack Milewski, student staff writer 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Depth is one of the biggest weapons a team can have. It often separates out the true contenders when the season nears its stretch run.

Penn State men's volleyball has already had its depth tested this season with starting setter Luke Braswell out of the lineup with an injury. Braswell has been tremendous this season for the Nittany Lions, but in his wake, true freshman Nathan Smith has been just as promising.

Smith led the Nittany Lions to back-to-back wins on the road in Penn State first conference road test this past weekend. The five-set victories at NJIT and Princeton showcased setter talents as well as the team's resiliency.

"Nathan is very talented and he wasn't fazed by anything on the court," head coach Mark Pavlik said. "I think our team as a whole is at the point where we believe in ourselves no matter where the match is." 

That belief was at the forefront of comeback victories in both five setters as Penn State proved to be road warriors in New Jersey.

Despite a minor setback on the road at Saint Francis Tuesday, the Nittany Lions are still positioned at number two in the EIVA standings and sporting lots of confidence.

"I don't think we need much mental reset with this team, they take things one set at a time and don't get too carried away," Pavlik said.

Albrecht Adds Versatility

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By Jack Milewski, student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For Penn State, Friday and Saturday mark another big road test in the EIVA. For Nittany Lion Aidan Albrecht, the two games mean a little bit more.

Albrecht played high school volleyball at Old Bridge, located roughly 45 minutes from both Princeton and NJIT. It was at Old Bridge that w Albrecht honed his skills and began to polish himself into the player Penn State sees on the court today.

Albrecht was a two-time All-State player, earned player of the state honors in New Jersey in 2013. Last year, when Penn State made the trip to New Jersey, Albrecht had the thrill of a lifetime, playing in front of family and friends who had never seen him play before.

"Last year was definitely awesome playing in this road trip," Albrecht said. "It was pretty cool seeing a lot of my family and friends in the stands who had never seen me before play. It's pretty cool playing in front of so many people who helped me get where I am today."

Albrecht has been a key contributor for Penn State since his redshirt freshman season two years ago. Adding to his game, it's unique skill to be able to perform at a high level at more than one position. Albrecht has done more than that, having played three different positions for Penn State since his first season. 

"I think when we realized Aidan was the player he is is when [Matt] Seifert went down with an injury a few years ago," head coach Mark Pavlik said. "He came in at a position he was unfamiliar in and played middle very well for us."

Although Albrecht is listed as an outside on the roster, his versatility has seen him play right side and middle blocker. While many people would struggle with juggling two or three positions, Albrecht has done the opposite, working well in all three places.  

"My role on the team right now is basically just do whatever is asked of me," Albrecht said. "I've basically played every position so I feel comfortable taking on different roles." 

Though Albrecht's role on the team this year has been slightly limited on the court, he has still produced solid numbers every time he has been called upon. On the year, Albrecht has 41 kills, 12 blocks and 20 digs. Now a redshirt junior, not only is Albrecht expected to produce on the court, there is an added expectation of leadership as well.

"During practice I feel an added sense of leadership," Albrecht said. "When I'm out there practicing with a lot of younger guys they look for me for pointers and tips. I think it's important to help them because it will pay off for both them and myself in the long run."

Pavlik says that despite Albrecht's calm demeanor and quiet personality, he is as competitive as they come when he steps on the court. What Albrecht has demonstrated in his time at Penn State is that depth and flexibility are important assets on a winning team. 

"It is very nice having someone who has so much experience in a role like the one Aidan has right now," Pavlik said. "He has played more positions than anyone else at this level and there aren't many situations he hasn't seen while out on the court." 

Albrecht and the Nittany Lions will look to continue their hot streak this weekend. Penn State travels to NJIT Friday, Feb. 10 before heading to Princeton Saturday Feb. 11 for its first two EIVA outings on the road. First serve for both matches is set for 7 p.m.

Energy Powers Lions in EIVA Opener

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By Jack Milewski, student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The energy in Rec Hall was palpable from the first serve, but such is the usual setting when it comes to EIVA conference play inside the historic building. Friday night's conference opener had an added electricity in the air though, as Penn State and Saint Francis met on the court for the first time since last year's EIVA Championship event. 

Penn State came out with a determined and dominant performance in its conference opener, closing out Saint Francis in straight sets in front of a raucous Rec Hall crowd.

"I cant say enough about the support we got from the wRECking crew and from everybody else that showed up," head coach Mark Pavlik said.

Penn State hit a blistering .423 in their first EIVA matchup of the season. In front of a crowd of more than 1,000, the Nittany Lions channeled the energy from the crowd and the energy that the team themselves seemed to have beginning with warmups all the way through their victory. 

"It felt more like 3,000 people in that crowd tonight," Pavlik said. "Our players never backed down and we really fed off the energy from the crowd. I thought we were as aggressive as we have been all season long. If we keep moving in that direction, I like where we are headed."

In the brotherly matchup featuring Braswell vs. Braswell, Luke bested his elder brother Stephen, as he steered Penn State to its highest hitting percentage of the season. Braswell also poured in an ace, six digs, a kill and a team-high three blocks. Penn State limited Stephen to just seven kills, holding the All-EIVA honoree to a hitting clip below .100.  

"I think we passed and blocked very well tonight," Braswell said. "When the passers are on and passing it high like they did tonight, it lets me do my job. Also we out-blocked them by five and a half so even if they passed well we had a big block ready to go."

Saint Francis pushed the Nittany Lions at times during the match, most notably in the second set. Penn State was up 14-9 heading into a Saint Francis timeout. The Red Flash answered with five straight points, but Penn State did not waver and struck right back, overtaking Saint Francis to capture the lead and move ahead without relinquishing the lead.

"I thought that we managed to keep a pretty level head when they went on their runs," Chris Nugent said. "When we went on runs we just kept building on it, I think that was a big difference as well."

Nugent was spectacular for the Nittany Lions, as he poured in 16 kills on .600 hitting. Calvin Mende was strong in a secondary roll as he had 11 kills on .474 hitting. Both Nittany Lions smashed the ball all night, prompting frequently loud cheers from the crowd.

"[Chris] Nugent was great tonight," Braswell said. "Anytime you have a hitter swinging like that it makes your job as the setter a lot easier because you know that he will probably put it away if you go to him." 

It's now on to the next EIVA matchup for Penn State, as the 13th-rank Nittany Lions will have a small bit of time to rest with only one outing this weekend. The focus though will shift toward next week, when the Nittany Lions hit the road for the first EIVA conference road trip, traveling to NJIT and Princeton for a pair of back-to-back weekend matches. First serve for both outings is set for 7 p.m. 

Brothers Meet in Conference Opener

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By Jack Milewski, student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Come Friday night at Rec Hall, Penn State and Saint Francis won't be the only intriguing matchup as the outing will place brother against brother. 

There aren't many better ways to open the EIVA conference slate for the Nittany Lions than a matchup against the team that unfortunately put a bitter end to Penn State's season just a year ago. Couple that with the fact that when the two teams line up for first serve Friday, Penn State setter Luke Braswell and Saint Francis outside Stephen Braswell will be on opposite ends of the same court, making for quite an interesting night.

"We've talked about it a little bit," Luke, the younger of the two Braswell's said. "It will be a friendly competition, definitely some trash talking as well."

Luke has already been one of many young bright spots for the Nittany Lions during the early part of the 2017 season. Following a redshirt season last year, Braswell spent time soaking in everything from veteran first team All-EIVA Penn State former setter Taylor Hammond. Hammond commanded the offense for all four seasons at Penn State following a redshirt season in his first year on campus, picking up EIVA Newcomer of the Year honors in 2013.   

For Braswell, that experience has made his transition this year from a redshirt Nittany Lion to a leader on the court, a much easier process. Head coach Mark Pavlik also noted that the year of learning and mentoring was beneficial for Braswell, shaping him into a more mature student-athlete, opposed to someone who has played just nine matches at the Division I level.

"He is a very mature player and very smart as well," Pavlik said. "Luke is extremely detailed, he will always look over the box score after games and try to figure out exactly what he can do to get better. That certainly comes with maturity and is one of the reasons why he has been successful so far." 

That maturity and meticulous attention to detail was a trait of Braswell's well before the collegiate level. Even in high school, Braswell says he would always look at the box score after matches and pick out a few areas he wanted to improve on.

"I've just always had a love for volleyball," Braswell said. "I've always wanted to get better and help my team get better so I think it's something that is pretty much a routine to me now."

Through nine games this season, Braswell has already settled into a routine, dishing out numerous assists to his teammates, while also providing a pleasant surprise defensively during his back row rotations. In six of the nine matches, Braswell has dished out 40-plus assists, including 62 against USC in Penn State's first win. The efficiency has placed him at number nine in the nation in terms of assists per set with 10.40 per frame. 

"He just works very hard," Pavlik said. "He still has a lot to learn, we have talked a lot about foot work the past couple weeks and seeing him make decision a little bit quicker. I think that's the next step for him, but he has already been great this season." 

Braswell will be able to continue his progress on the court this Friday, with a familiar face in brother Stephen right across the net. Pavlik says that he knows the rivalry will be a big part of the match for the two brothers, but it is also a big match for the team in general.

"They knocked us out of the tournament last year," Pavlik said. "This is a big match in general because you always want to get in to a good rhythm to start conference play. I was overall happy with our play this past weekend. It will be a great match and they return almost everyone from last year, so we are looking forward to it." 

The Nittany Lions have just one match this week, set for Friday, Feb. 3 at home in Rec Hall. First serve against the Red Flash is set for 7 p.m.


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