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Pin Hitters Help Nittany Lions Advance to NCAA Semifinals

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11059407.jpegBy Tyler Feldman, Student Staff Writer
PALO ALTO, Calif. - Thanks to the superb play of its pin hitters, fifth-seeded Penn State (21-9) upended fourth-seeded Hawaii (24-7) in four sets (25-22, 25-20, 17-25, 27-25) in the second of two play-in games Tuesday night at historic Maples Pavilion.

With the win, the Nittany Lions advanced to the NCAA national semifinals and will face top-seeded Lewis at 11 p.m. ET on Thursday, May 7. This is the 17th consecutive season Penn State has reached the final four. 

The Blue and White's pin hitters - made up of Aaron Russell, Nick Goodell and Chris Nugent - accumulated 92 percent of the team's kills (54 out of 59). The trio's dynamic offensive balance created defensive problems for the Rainbow Warriors.

"I thought that our outside hitters did a good job," head coach Mark Pavlik said. "Nick [Goodell] balanced out the rights side with the night that he had. Overall, when the match was on the line, our competition level was as high as it's been all year long."

First-team AVCA All-American Aaron Russell led all hitters with 20 kills in the match. He swung at a match-high 46 sets and finished with a .239 hitting percentage. Russell also added seven digs and a perfect receive percentage.

"I think we've come a long way since the beginning of the year when we faced Hawaii and it feels good to get a little revenge and next we have Lewis who we also lost to twice," Russell said. "And I think the adversity we experienced at the beginning of the season really has helped us improve, and I definitely think that's one of the reasons why were on this run that we're on right now."

The senior outside hitter has been a leader all season long but is using the postseason platform as a pedestal to help make sure his teammates and coaching staff achieve their end goal, a national championship.

"I think I'm getting more comfortable," Russell said. "Being out this past summer in Anaheim really helped me learn a lot, it was a good experience. My experience being a senior now, I've been through a lot and played with a lot of these guys and so were getting comfortable with each other and gelling, and it's a lot of fun."  

Redshirt senior opposite Nick Goodell and sophomore outside hitter Chris Nugent were the two x-factors, however. Goodell was magical, killing 19 attacks on a .378 mark and adding one service ace and four digs. Nugent was spectacular, as well, tallying 15 kills at a .400 attacking percentage.

The performances described above would not be possible without setter Taylor Hammond. The redshirt junior kept the Nittany Lions in system and served up a match-high 54 assists. His play certainly did not go unnoticed by his teammates.

"Again it starts with the passers," Goodell said. "Once they're able to get in a rhythm, then Taylor [Hammond] can get in a rhythm. Then with our middles getting up like they did, everyone is going to be successful. We're a very hard team to stop like that."

Prior to upsetting Hawaii yesterday, the last time Penn State had beaten a team ranked higher than them in the NCAA tournament occurred back in 2010. That year, the Nittany Lions reached the championship only to lose to host and top-ranked Stanford.

The winner of Lewis vs. Penn State will play the victor of Loyola-Chicago vs. UC Irvine in the 2015 NCAA National Championship on May 9.

Lions Looking Ahead to Matchup with Hawaii

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11056894.jpegBy Tyler Feldman, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - After winning its 17th straight EIVA Championship title last Friday over George Mason, No. 7 Penn State (20-9) earned the No. 5 seed in the 2015 NCAA Tournament being played this week at Maples Pavilion on the campus of Stanford University.

The Nittany Lions open on Tuesday against fourth-seeded Hawaii (21-6) at 11 p.m. ET in the second of two play-in matches.

Before we take a look at the strengths of the Rainbow Warriors and what the Nittany Lions need to do to stymie Hawaii, let's check out how Penn State's journey to the tourney.

Penn State's Journey
Three weeks into the season, the Lions knew they had work to do. They opened play on a six-match losing streak. After falling to Lewis on Feb. 20 and Loyola-Chicago on Feb. 21, Penn State's record stood at 4-9.

Since those two losses, however, the Nittany Lions have caught fire and rolled off 16-straight victories en route to their 31
st EIVA/ECVL regular season title and 17th straight EIVA Championship title.

The Blue and White arrived in California for the 2015 NCAA Tournament on Sunday. Take a look through some highlights.

University Park to Palo Alto
The Blue and White departed from Rec Hall at approximately 6:30 a.m. on Sunday and bused to Dulles Airport. After making sure the players locked up aisle seats for the flight, the team flew across the country to San Francisco. Around dinnertime, the plane touched down in the Bay Area and the group then chartered to the team hotel in Palo Alto.

Following dinner, Penn State traveled to Santa Clara University for a nighttime edition of serve and pass.

The post-practice events were anything but ordinary as the Nittany Lions had an opportunity to meet two iconic sports stars - NBA MVP Steve Nash and 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup star Brandi Chastain. The two famous athletes were extremely down to earth and super cool, causing the team's motivation and will to want to win elevate to new heights.

Scouting Hawaii

Back on Jan. 9, the Nittany Lions lost in straight sets (26-24, 25-19, 25-18) to Hawaii in the 21st annual Outrigger Resorts Invitational. The Rainbow Warriors hold a 14-8 advantage all-time in the head-to-head series.

Here is a breakdown of some things to watch from Hawaii on Tuesday night:

Curbing Taylor Averill
Redshirt senior Taylor Averill is arguably the best overall player in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF). The 6-foot-7 All-American middle blocker holds the second-highest hitting percentage in the country with a .483 mark. He was named to the All-MPSF first team last Thursday.

Containing Kupono Fey
Sophomore Kupono Fey grew up in Honolulu, Oahu. He's a homegrown player competing for his hometown school. The six-foot-five outside hitter has been key in the last few weeks. Against Long Beach State in the MPSF quarterfinal two weeks ago, Fey notched 17 kills and 12 digs for his first double-double of the season.

Preventing Passing
In addition to Averill and Fey, the Rainbow Warriors have more hard swingers with outside hitter Sinisa Zarkovic and opposite Brook Sedore. The junior Zarkovic is second on the team with 3.20 kills per set, while the senior Sedore leads the squad with 3.36 kills per set. If able to remain in system, Hawaii is dangerous. Strong passing leads to strong sets from sophomore Jennings Franciskovic (10.8 assists per set), which in turn leads to potent swings from Hawaii's pin hitters.

Defense Leads to Offense as Lions Capture EIVA Championship

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11050936.jpegBy Tyler Feldman, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - They did it. Again.

For the 17th-straight season, No. 7 Penn State (20-9) captured the EIVA Championship. This time, the title came in the form of a straight sets (25-16, 25-17, 25-17) win over George Mason (15-13) in Rec Hall on Friday.

"Defense is leading to our offensive," head coach Mark Pavlik said. "And the offensive guys are working hard to finish those opportunities. It's something that if we can continue, we are going to force teams to play pretty physically against us."

With the victory, the Nittany Lions are headed once again to the NCAA tournament being held in Palo Alto, California. The Blue and White will find out its seeding Saturday, when the selection show begins at 1 p.m.

Thanks to the senior class and assistant head coach Colin McMillan's integrated defensive scheme, Penn State breezed by the Patriots. Aaron Russell finished with a match-high 15 kills on a .619 attacking percentage. He also added six digs and two service aces en route to being named the 2015 EIVA Championship Most Outstanding Player.

Just like in Wednesday's semifinal match against Princeton, tonight's bout ended with a Nick Goodell service ace. By taking advantage of George Mason sending two and three blockers to Russell, the redshirt senior finished with 11 kills and eight digs.

"Everyone looks to Ron for them to block, and then whenever one of us steps up, it makes it that much harder, but when everyone steps up, teams don't have a chance," Goodell said.

The third senior on the team, Connor Curry, kept the Nittany Lions in system all match long. Curry dug five swings, initiated brilliant first contacts and added three assists to pace the Blue and White.

"I've been lucky to have won this thing five times," Curry said. "I'm just happy to be going back to NCAAs, and that's our goal at the beginning of the season. We've set ourselves up in the right place, so we'll see what we can do in the next three matches."

However, it was two non-seniors who changed the complexity of the match in favor of the Nittany Lions. Sophomore Chris Nugent accumulated 14 kills on just 19 swings and redshirt junior setter Taylor Hammond compiled 41 assists.

"I thought our passing and serving was pretty good," Pavlik said. "Can't give enough credit to our offense. We took what they gave us, and we understood what they were giving us, and made it real tough on them to try to adapt to anything we did."

Russell echoed the words of his four-year head coach, but went even further by praising the play of his talented setter.

"A lot of credit to Taylor [Hammond]," Russell said. "He spread the offense really well tonight, and he gave us a lot of good opportunities.... We had a very offensively efficient game, and that is a good thing when you're going into a national championship tournament."

Now Penn State has a quick turnaround before leaving for Stanford on Sunday. Though according to Russell, the team's challenging non-conference schedule this season has prepared the team well for the NCAA Tournament.

"Through the non-conference play that we've had, we've experienced a lot of adversity," Russell said. "I think that just being able to learn and improve from that has brought us to where we are today.... We want to take it to these teams that are standing in our way of a national championship."

Nittany Lions Serve Up Pavlik's 500th Win to Close Regular Season

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11038440.jpegBy Tyler Feldman, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - A strong contingency of Blue and White fans witnessed history Saturday afternoon at DeGol Arena as the Nittany Lions defeated St. Francis in straight sets (25-21, 25-19, 25-22) in their final match of the regular season to give Mark Pavlik his 500th career victory.

Pavlik, who is in his 21st season as head coach of the men's volleyball program, embodies everything that Penn State stands for academically and athletically. His love of teaching and respect for others reflects the true heart of a Nittany Lion.

"In those 500 wins I have not served a ball in the court," Pavlik said. "I have not put a ball away. I have not set a ball. I just happened to be here that long to see it. More than anything else, I think it speaks to the true foundation that Tom Tait laid for this program back in the late 70s. We've been able to represent the university and the athletic department, not only with our current teams, but also with our alums."

It was a fitting end for No. 7 Penn State (18-9, 12-0 EIVA) over St. Francis (6-20, 4-8 EIVA). Immediately after senior outside hitter Aaron Russell earned the final point of match, the entire team rushed to Pavlik and paraded him with silly string and a celebratory cake.

"His 500th win is a lot of proof to what he's done for the program and the experience that he has," Russell said. "What a great coach he is. He's coached a lot of good players, and he's given a lot to me and my family. It's nice to be able to play for him, and his 500th win to be able to give something back to him."

Under the tutelage of Pavlik, the Nittany Lions have gone from losing their first six matches of the 2015 campaign to finishing the regular season on a 14-match winning streak.

Even further, the program is now a perfect 36-0 all-time versus the Red Flash, having dropped just seven sets ever against the university just down the road from University Park in Loretto. 

"It's not something that [Pavlik] shows a lot, but you know it really means something to him," middle blocker Matt Seifert said. "To be able to get it on the last regular season match of the year, and to be able to celebrate with him the way we did, it's just special. I'll remember this with him for as long as I play."

The Blue and White utilized experience to slip past the Red Flash. Sixteen kills from Russell, nine kills from redshirt senior Nick Goodell, 34 assists from setter Taylor Hammond, and 11 digs from libero Connor Curry paced Penn State. Sophomore outside hitter Chris Nugent added five more kills and Seifert and Matt Callaway each had four kills to balance out the Nittany Lions.

Penn State had already clinched its 17th straight EIVA regular season title two weeks ago after wins over Harvard and Sacred Heart. That means the Nittany Lions will once again have the top seed and home court advantage for the EIVA Championship coming up on April 29 and May 1 at Rec Hall.

"Just keep things rolling," Russell said. "I think we're doing a good job now. We're going to turn it up more in practice knowing what's at stake. You can always see a difference between playoff play and regular season play, in our mindset even. I'm just looking forward to the focus and the fun we're going to have competing on the court. I'm looking forward to the postseason."

With George Mason topping Princeton and NJIT this past weekend, the Nittany Lions will face Princeton to open the EIVA Semifinals on April 29. First serve set for 7:30 p.m. at Rec Hall.

"There's three different seasons, and now that two of them are in the books, the most exciting one starts," Seifert said. "It's business for us. Getting the first seed and winning the regular season conference title is something that we've done many times while I've been here and many times before I've been here. It's the same type of approach. It's all business, and we have a couple more goals that we want to accomplish before we're done this year."

Pavlik Nearing 500th Career Win

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11025510.jpegBy Tyler Feldman, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - In his 21st season as head coach of the men's volleyball program, Mark Pavlik is on the brink of his 500th career victory.

After wins over NJIT and Princeton last weekend, Pavlik now sits in his Rec Hall office with 499 wins under his belt at the helm of Penn State Men's Volleyball heading in to Saturday's match at Saint Francis.

"It's a nice round number that people tend to remember," Pavlik said. "You get a chance to look back on it. If it happens this weekend, I'm glad it happens with this group of guys. I really enjoy this team. They've been so resilient, so much fun to be around, and they've worked so hard. It's just a time where you get a chance to think about what's come before you."

Currently, Pavlik owns a lifetime record at Penn State of 499-151. He has won more than 77 percent of the matches he has coached, a statistic that speaks volumes to the standard he has set in Happy Valley.

He captured the 2008 NCAA National Championship and has made University Park one of the premier spots across the country to play Division I men's volleyball. He has helped Penn State earn 17 straight EIVA Regular Season Championships, EIVA Tournament Championships and NCAA Tournament appearances.

The maestro has coached 21 different players to 41 All-America awards. Even further, each season at least three of his student athletes have earned first team All-East/All-EIVA accolades.

"Any coach will tell you 500 [wins] is a great accomplishment, but it really means that you've been doing it for quite awhile with some really great people around him," assistant coach Jay Hosack said. "He's been lucky enough to be in a place like Penn State where they've been very supportive of the program and supportive of him. The quality of the kids that he gets here, you look at the whole package, and that's really what that means."

For Pavlik, winning has always been important, but what he takes pride in is the way in which he develops his players into well-rounded student athletes who positively impact both the program athletically and the university academically and socially.

"I think Pav will tell you that the 500 wins belong to the players, and he's just happy to be a part of all the great players that have come through that have provided him with the opportunity," assistant coach Colin McMillan. "He's been a great shepherd and steward for the program throughout his 21 years as head coach."

Having already sealed the top spot atop the EIVA standings, the Nittany Lions will host the EIVA Tournament for 17th straight season under Pavlik. Garnering home court advantage is an area that Pavlik understands is integral to the success of his team in the postseason.

"It's huge," Pavlik said. "You look at our history, and I think our guys, over the course of all the EIVA Championships that have been hosted by us, we've been able to stay in our routine and embrace the pressure that's on us to win these matches. They've done that really well. This year, with the other three teams involved, we're going to have two tough matches to play, and we're going to have to be ready for them. That's the beauty of hosting."

The Nittany Lions will look to not only help get Pavlik his milestone victory, but also close out their regular season a perfect 12-0 in EIVA Conference play when they travel to Loretto to meet Saint Francis at 4 p.m. on Saturday.

"The way we've been playing, we've shown that we can play a pretty high level game, and we're playing for a longer and longer period of time during a match, and I just want that to continue," Pavlik said. "Let's keep building. Let's keep getting stronger because after this weekend, their season can end in one match, and I'd like to stay with this group for as long as I can."

Seniors Spark Two Wins in Final Home Weekend

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10993443.jpegBy Tyler Feldman, Student Staff Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Thanks to a pair of wins inside Rec Hall over the weekend, the seventh-ranked Penn State men's volleyball team (15-9, 9-0 EIVA) clinch its 31st EIVA regular season title.

Sparked by the senior class, the Nittany Lions survived Harvard (11-11, 5-5 EIVA) in five sets (25-20, 20-25, 24-26, 25-21, 15-10) on Friday night. Then in Saturday's senior day match, the Blue and White defeated Sacred Heart (12-11, 3-7 EIVA) in four sets (25-15, 20-25, 25-17, 25-18).

With the two wins, the Nittany Lions clinched the top seed in the EIVA Tournament. That means that Penn State will have home-court advantage once again in the postseason. All matches will be played at Rec Hall on April 29 (Semifinals) and May 1 (Championship).

Being in our home gym and just maintaining our normal routine is really helpful," senior libero Connor Curry said.

Looking back on Friday evening's five-set match, the Nittany Lions committed their most attacking errors this season (36), which led to just a .178 hitting percentage, but found a way to score a victory.

We weren't great at times, but I thought we were great when we had to be," head coach Mark Pavlik said. "I think that's a mark of a pretty good team."

After winning the first set, the Crimson took games two and three before Penn State clawed back and won the last two frames.

Seniors Aaron Russell and Curry led the way. Russell posted a match-high 26 kills, while Curry compiled a season-high 19 digs. Redshirt junior Taylor Hammond added 56 assists to complete the comeback against Harvard.

We knew what we had to do," Russell said. "We didn't take losing as an option, and I think that we just kicked it into another gear."

The fourth game electrified the great crowd at Rec Hall. Down 19-20, the Nittany Lions used two straight kills from Russell, two aces from junior setter Zack Parik and a Harvard attacking error to regain the lead, 24-20. After a Harvard kill, Russell answered with a kill of his own to help Penn State tie the match at two games apiece.

"I told Hamm to start setting Aaron, and we won," Curry said. "Simple as that. And then we started cleaning up the ball in transition."

Russell tallied half of his 26 kills in the final two frames to jumpstart the Nittany Lions.

"The guys just asked me to step up, and I think I did that," Russell said.

Saturday's senior day concluded the regular season home slate for Penn State as the Blue and White won in four sets over Sacred Heart. The team posted a season-high 20.5 total team blocks, featuring Nick Goodell, who sealed the victory with a solo block in the fourth set.

"It felt good just because I haven't blocked a ball for a while," Goodell said on winning the final point. "It's just something I've been working on all year. It's what our team has been working on, so regardless of who it was, getting a block to end a match is great for us."

According to Pavlik, Sacred Heart's offensive tempo, paired with Penn State's understanding of the scouting report and match execution, led to the team's block total.

To go along with his 3.5 blocks, Goodell also scored a match-high 14 kills. Plus, Russell and Chris Nugent each earned eight kills, while Matt Callaway led the team with 6.5 blocks.

"Having it be senior night, it's always a little emotional," Russell said. "It's just a lot of fun to play in front of fans and represent a university that has given so much to you."

The final three regular season matches for Penn State will be on the road, starting with Princeton and NJIT next Friday and Saturday.

Resilient Senior Class Sets Standard

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10978272.jpegBy Tyler Feldman, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Head coach Mark Pavlik always talks about the evolution of collegiate athletics. Being in his 21st year at the helm of the men's volleyball program, Pavlik understands that he has just four or five years to coach his student-athletes before they must graduate.

This season is no different for Pavlik as libero Connor Curry, opposite Nick Goodell, outside hitter Aaron Russell, and student manager Mike Hobson's Penn State careers near a resilient end.

"They went out, and they represented the very best of Penn State and Penn State student-athletes," Pavlik said.

Curry and Goodell are redshirt seniors and arrived in Happy Valley back in 2011. Russell, a senior, started his career in 2012. Hobson transferred to University Park in 2013 after two years at Penn State Behrend. Each has taken different paths to arrive at the university, but together they have left a lasting impression on the athletic and academic community.

"Everything that's right about Penn State Athletics is embodied by these guys," Pavlik said.

Great Goodell
An Ambridge, Pennsylvania, native, Goodell has made the most of his Penn State career. An RPTM major, Goodell has achieved quite a lot over his five-year career.

Currently, Goodell is ranked fifth among NCAA D-I active career leaders in kills. He has accumulated 1,058 of them throughout his time while donning the Blue and White. This season Goodell has tallied 204 kills, second most on the team.

"My best times here were just traveling with the guys," Goodell said. "I wouldn't trade any memory on the road with them."

Conceptual Curry
Curry traveled across the country from Newport Beach, California, to play at the highest collegiate volleyball level. An academic all-star, Curry is a constant on the Dean's List, majoring in economics and international politics.

His academic success has translated to the volleyball court, as well.  He has accumulated 959 digs over his career and has been an integral part of keeping the team in system both offensively and defensively. Just this season alone, Curry leads the team with 193 digs (2.41 per set).

"Hanging around with the guys," Curry said is what he will miss most. "Being a part of the team, that's really the best part. It's fun to be able to play volleyball and do something you enjoy, but what I'll remember forever is the experiences with my teammates and my best friends."

Rocket Russell
Russell is unquestionably the most talented player on the team. The four-year starter from Ellicott City, Maryland, played his first three seasons alongside his older brother, Peter, who graduated just last year. With 379 kills this year (4.74 per set), Russell now has 1,384 kills in his career. He leads all NCAA D-I active players with that kill mark.

He is also a superb server, who has accumulated a team-leading 41 service aces this season. He ranks first among active NCAA players with 177 career aces. That means he needs just 30 more aces to match former Nittany Lion Max Holt (2006-09) for the program record for total aces.

Russell was named to the First Team All-EIVA last season and is making a strong case to be crowned national player of the year this season.

"There's school and then there's your team," Russell said. "Your team is your family away from home. Everyone is close, and it's just a nice little brotherhood that we have."

Helpful Hobson
Hobson's older brother, Corey, held the same position with the program prior to Mike arriving to University Park. According to Pavlik, Hobson basically redshirted the summer before his first year at the main campus in order to learn the Data Volley software.

"Mike is one of those people when you ask for 'X' you generally get four or five times what you ask for, and it's done well," Pavlik said. "He is going to make a great coach."

For Hobson, he could not have asked for a better learning experience at Penn State. The team immediately welcomed him in and accepted him right away, something Hobson says helped him transition to the larger campus.

"Just the way I can help these guys and help the coaches out is just awesome," Hobson said. "They've done so much for me that I just want to give everything back to them."

Pavlik used the word "resilient" to describe this senior class. Nothing has worn this team down according to the head coach.

"It's a group that has set a standard for making their teammates believe, making their teammates better," Pavlik said.

This senior class is winners of four EIVA regular season championships and has reached the NCAA tournament every season. It is a special class with clear portraits of leadership and the ability to win.

The question that Pavlik poses for his future student athletes is, "Here's what they did. Can you do that?"

The Nittany Lions wrap up the home portion of their regular season on Friday and Saturday against conference foes Harvard and Sacred Heart. Both matches will take place in the main gym at Rec Hall.

Nittany Lions Win Road Match with Home Feel

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By Tyler Feldman, Student Staff Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With lots of family in attendance, senior outside hitter Aaron Russell tallied 15 kills on a .700 hitting mark to lead No. 7 Penn State (13-9, 7-0 EIVA) to a straight sets road victory (25-19, 25-22, 25-13) over conference foe George Mason (9-11, 4-4 EIVA) in Fairfax, Virginia, on Saturday night.

Redshirt junior setter Taylor Hammond dished out 38 assists to lead the Nittany Lions in transition and help orchestrate the Blue and White's offense attack en route to their ninth straight win.

"Nice three-game win down here in Fairfax," head coach Mark Pavlik said. "It's always a tough place to play. I thought we did a really nice job with our pass and serve game. Our offense, Taylor did an outstanding job."

In set one, Penn State utilized a balanced offensive pursuit to keep George Mason out of system. Russell, Chris Nugent and Jalen Penrose accumulated four kills apiece to open up gaps within the Patriots defense. Add in two service aces from Russell and the Green and Gold did not have a chance.

"Well, and you got to couple that with the way we're serving and making it tough on them to side out and making it tough on the opponent to hit for high numbers," Pavlik said. "That's what gives us separation."

Russell, Nugent and Penrose all carried their rhythms from the first game into the second frame, as the three hitters combined for 14 kills in the middle set. Plus, the Nittany Lions stayed in system in the second game, siding out at 81 percent.

"We went into this match saying, hey we have to win the transition game because we were going to get some opportunities," Pavlik said. "Taylor ran the transition game very, very well. At this point in the year you like to see those stages of the game complementing themselves. I think our serving and passing is starting to really complement our offense."

In the final game, the Nittany Lions played like they wanted to get on the bus and get back to University Park as quickly as possible. Russell killed six swings on six attempts to lead the way in the third set for Penn State. The Blue and White also sided out at 78 percent to maintain a strong transition game.

"At one point Jay [Hosack] leaned over to me in game three saying on first swing side out we were hitting .470 and in transition we were hitting .420, so Taylor was doing an outstanding job," Pavlik said.

Senior libero Connor Curry added seven digs throughout the match, while middle hitter Matt Seifert converted four kills on five attempts and middle hitter Matt Callaway pushed five kills on just seven tries.

A nice contingency of Penn State fans cheered on the team inside the RAC to make the road match at George Mason feel like a home one at Rec Hall.

"It's always a great crowd here," Pavlik said. "The Penn State Maryland and Penn State D.C. area always comes out to support us really well. It's a tough place to play, but with the people in here there's a little bit of Rec Hall with us."

The team returns home to Rec Hall next Friday and Saturday to play in two EIVA conference matches against Harvard and Sacred Heart.

Hammond Sets Tone for Nittany Lions

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10751168.jpegBy Tyler Feldman, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lions are on a roll. They have won eight-straight matches and are ranked sixth in the nation. Such recent and consistent success is a result of the stellar play of Penn State's orchestrator, redshirt junior setter Taylor Hammond.

Hammond, a native of Mission Viejo, California, developed a love for volleyball at a very young age thanks to his dad, Doug, who played club ball at the University of California, Irvine.

"I grew up around the sport, so I started playing beach volleyball first with my dad when he got me into it," Hammond said. "I fell in love with the sport."

Hammond would go on to be a three-year varsity letter-winner and team captain at Santa Margarita Catholic High, guiding his high school to four straight Trinity League Championships and two Orange County Championships.

When it came time for Hammond to look to play at the collegiate level, he sent out his resume to several schools, one of those being Penn State.

"I sent [a resume] to Penn State, and we started talking," Hammond said. "They came out [to California] to watch me. The conversation started, and I just really felt a connection with the coaches and felt a connection with the school. I really fell in love with [Penn State] when I visited."

It was during spring break in Hammond's junior year of high school when head coach Mark Pavlik and his coaching staff attended the Best of the West tournament in San Diego. Intentions were to scout former Nittany Lion Jace Olsen, but knowing his program needed a setter, Pavlik took notice of the young Hammond.

"We knew we needed another setter because it was that time where the generations of setters were changing," Pavlik said. "We're watching the Santa Margarita team, and we're seeing this setter that delivers a nice ball and moves well. That's where we saw Taylor first, during his junior year of high school. We kept in touch. He came out for an unofficial visit later on that junior year. He has turned out to be a really good match for us."

Not only was Hammond selected as the 2013 EIVA Newcomer of the Year after his redshirt freshman season, but he was also selected to first-team All-EIVA last year as a redshirt sophomore. Now in his third full season in a regular role, Hammond is the brain behind the Blue and White's efficient offensive scheme.

"Setters, much like quarterbacks and point guards, have to be the coach on the floor," Pavlik said. "It's more of a cerebral position. They need to understand what the defense is giving them. They need to understand and execute a game plan. They need to understand the tools that they have at their disposal...Look at any successful team, there's always been a great relationship between setters and the coaching staff."

In Hammond's case specifically, the strong relationship he has with the coaching staff is a huge reason why he has been able to continue the program's winning tradition.

Despite a slow start to the season for the entire team, Hammond has made the necessary midseason adjustments. Most notably, Hammond has worked with Pavlik and assistant coach Jay Hosack to hone in on going against the flow - establishing more offensive quick and bic plays - which has opened space for the pin hitters. He currently sits fifth in the country with 10.78 assists per set.

"Overall it has been his strength gains," Pavlik said on Hammond's growth. "Here in the last two to three months, he has really paid attention to his footwork. He has really made a conscious effort to be more efficient on how he gets his body in position to set the ball."

Hosack echoed Pavlik's observations of Hammond's development.

"His decision-making has improved," Hosack said. "He used to just set the best hitter as opposed to the best matchup. He's learned how to take the blame. When a hitter makes a bad swing, Taylor takes full responsibility to take the pressure off the hitter."

As opposed to three or four passers and four or five hitters rotating during a match, there is only one setter on a volleyball team. As a result, Hammond is an integral part of almost 97 percent of the plays.

"Hammond is touching every second ball, so he must be the standard that has to put the ball in a good place for the hitters," Hosack said.

According to the entire coaching staff, Hammond has transformed into a naturally strong leader by way of his consistent personality and response.

"Taylor is the one that runs the show," Hosack said. "He is the quarterback of the team. And, we still get him for another year, which is even better."

Nittany Lions Sweep Weekend, Remain Atop EIVA

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10934375.jpegBy Tyler Feldman, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - No. 8 Penn State (12-9, 6-0 EIVA) defeated EIVA opponents Princeton (9-8, 5-2 EIVA) and NJIT (8-9, 1-6 EIVA) this past weekend in the South Gym at Rec Hall to not only extend its match winning streak to eight, but also increase its cushion atop the conference standings.

On Friday night, the Nittany Lions topped the Tigers in straight sets. However, late Saturday afternoon's match against the Highlanders required five sets to determine the outcome.

After losing its first six matches of the season, Penn State has learned how to win.

"A lot of our [positive] turn came in practice," outside hitter Aaron Russell said. "We just wanted to make a statement that we were going to work our butts off every single day in practice, and we've been having good practices. We just have a more competitive nature. We love playing right now, and we want to keep it rolling. We don't want to lose."

In Friday night's match, Penn State trailed in several statistical categories, but took advantage of Princeton's 28 service errors to win in straight sets (25-19, 25-21, 25-23). The Tigers had more kills than the Nittany Lions (40-32), a better hitting percentage (.427 vs. .356), and more assists (38-25), yet the Blue and White prevailed.

"This was a game with some very odd rhythm to it with the 28 missed serves," head coach Mark Pavlik said. "I don't think we particularly blocked well. I don't think we played defense particularly well. I thought we served the heck out of the ball. I thought that even though we hit .356...this was a match where there wasn't a lot of rallies."

Senior Aaron Russell continued his torrid pace, swinging a team-high 12 kills on a .348 hitting percentage. Redshirt freshman Jalen Penrose, who has been terrific filling in for redshirt senior Nick Goodell, posted ten kills on a team-high .571 hitting percentage.

"I think the biggest thing with Jalen is just that he's proven to himself that he can play and play well," redshirt junior Matt Seifert said. "For [Penrose] being his first couple of starts I think that's really big just getting out there...He's doing a great job."

The story was written a little differently late Saturday afternoon, as the Nittany Lions needed five sets (27-29, 25-15, 23-25, 25-16, 15-13) to outlast conference foe NJIT.

"I thought tonight's match was a great show of resiliency," Pavlik said. "Coming off of a pretty emotional match and a pretty intense match last night with Princeton...and then to come here less than 24 hours after you play...from the latter part of game three on, I thought we played well."

In set one the Blue and White looked to have total control, but NJIT never gave up, winning the frame in extras, 27-29. Penrose accumulated eight of his total 21 kills on .700 hitting in the opening game.

"You have to be clean as a unit, making sure that we're making good first contacts to allow Taylor [Hammond] a good set to get...any of the guys the ball and just execute," Penrose said.

Penn State took no prisoners in set two, using timely kills from Matt Callaway, Chris Nugent, Penrose, and Russell, as well as four digs from Connor Curry to win, 25-15.

Jabarry Goodridge and TJ Jurko each tallied six kills to pace NJIT, as the Highlanders battled back to win, 23-25.

"They forced us to play a little bit more," Russell said. "They kept a lot more serves in.... They were scrappy, too. They forced us to play in long rallies."

With their backs against the wall, the Nittany Lions, thanks to six kills from Russell, took down the Highlanders in the fourth game, 25-16, to force a decisive fifth set.

Penn State turned to Russell yet again in the final set. Last week's EIVA Offensive Player of the Week tallied five kills in the last frame to will his team to victory. He finished with a match-high 26 kills on a .362 hitting mark. Setter Taylor Hammond added 59 assists to keep Penn State in system.

Up next for the streaking Nittany Lions is a road trip next Saturday against EIVA opponent George Mason.

"It's always difficult to play in [George Mason's] gym," Russell said. "They always play hard. They pack the place. They have a lot of energy and emotion. I personally like playing there because it's closer to home, and I get to see a lot of friends and family.... They're definitely looking forward to playing us, so we have to be prepared and ready."


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