UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The stretch run in any sport is synonymous with tightly contested games and the push for the playoffs.
The Nittany Lion men's volleyball team finds itself nearing that part of the season as the second half of EIVA play is set to begin. Penn State is currently 7-1 in the EIVA and have proven once again to be the team to beat.
However, recent stumbles for Penn State have seen them fall in the rankings. The mistakes that the Nittany Lion's have made in the past couple matches hadn't happened for most of the season and are something that head coach Mark Pavlik knows they cannot have during the second half of the season.
"We know we can be better, it's just a matter of stepping up and doing so," Pavlik said. "We have a lot of guys who know how to deal with adversity so I don't think it's ever been a question of if we will figure it out, just when."
Penn State gained a much needed win over UC Irvine this past Monday, snapping a four game losing streak and more importantly, beginning the stretch run of their last 10 games, with a significant victory.
Much of the struggle for the Nittany Lions in their past couple of games has been to regain their mentality of competing every single point. There were multiple signs in Monday's contest to suggest that Penn State is close to regaining that mentality.
"We had a point where we were done with how we were playing. We were in a drought and we were done with that. We needed to change what we were doing," said setter Taylor Hammond.
The Nittany Lions still know that they can do better, but the win certainly goes a long way for the team, especially against a West Coast foe who is historically a powerhouse.
"When you compete hard and you win, it kind of pushes everything else to the side," Pavlik said. "It enables you to start with maybe a cleaner mental slate and be more confident in yourself."
Pavlik also said he agrees with the sentiment that the team certainly started to regain their competitive edge against UC Irvine. Pavlik mentioned after the defeat against St. Francis that he felt his team had lost that edge, but that it started to permeate through the team psyche during Monday's match.
"I think it was definitely better," Pavlik said. "We had given up six aces through about one set and a half and I posed the challenge to our passers to just compete. I think from that point on they had one ace and it was a clean serve that clipped the line, that is the type of mentality that we need to carry with us for the rest of the season."
The rest of the season, save for the two games this weekend against Lewis and Loyola Chicago and a mid week game against Ohio State, will be against EIVA foes. Also, for a team who has been accustomed to playing at home, Penn State will have five of their remaining nine games on the road. However, despite the differences, junior Chris Nugent says there is a simple fix.
"We need to make adjustments and be comfortable making them," Nugent said. "The coaching staff tells us the right things to do, we just have to execute it."
The EIVA is a conference that Penn State has dominated for the better part of the last two decades. That being said, even though the stretch run is dominated by EIVA matches, that doesn't mean that it will be easy to finish the season for Penn State.
"The EIVA is very tough now," Pavlik said. "There are some good teams out there and they are just getting better as you can see by the St. Francis match we just played. It's no longer a league where we can go out and not play our best and win, we have to show up and compete with all these teams. I'm expecting big crowds and tough games when we head on the road to NJIT and Princeton."
With the end of the season coming up, Penn State must bear down in their quest to defend their EIVA title and ultimately play for a national championship. If Monday's match is any indication, the Nittany Lions are starting to make great strides in getting back to their competitive and never say die attitude that gave them so much success early on in the season.
Penn State takes the court next against Lewis with first serve scheduled for 7 p.m. inside Rec Hall on Friday night.