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April 28, 2014
By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - As the Nittany Lions took the court for the EIVA championship match in Rec Hall for the last time this season, the team was playing for far more than any other match this year.
With the EIVA Championship title on the line along with securing the automatic qualification into the NCAA Tournament, the coaches and players fought hard to walk away with two wins against one of the most competitive fields the EIVA conference has seen.
On Thursday night, Penn State knocked off George Mason, 3-1 (25-27, 25-21, 25-18, 25-22). As the match continued, the players built on their momentum and gained confidence knowing they would advance to the EIVA final on Saturday night. With a strong back and forth battle, head coach Mark Pavlik noticed a shift in the amount of competition the EIVA conference is facing.
"George Mason came in and they were ready to compete," Pavlik said. "There was enough of a competitive level on both sides of the net. Before, there have been some semi-finals that felt more like a sacrificial lamb being led to slaughter as opposed to a competition. Mason came and wanted to compete."
Penn State had a day off before they faced Princeton in the EIVA final. As the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams of the EIVA conference took their sides of the net, both teams knew it was going to be a competitive match where every point counted. The Nittany Lions walked away with a 3-0 victory (25-23, 25-19, 25-18).
"As the year went on, they became more and more visible," Pavlik said. "This was not a match that we took lightly. We gutted out the win in game one. That's just a testament to the way these guys compete. In game two we were starting to hit our stride and in game three our serving picked up."
The lead between the Tigers and Nittany Lions went back and forth before Penn State closed out the set securing their first win of the match. The energy in Rec Hall was electric and the players knew they could build off of a strong start.
"It felt like we were in control a lot of the match. A lot of the points that they scored early were from our errors," Nick Goodell said. "I felt like if we start good, we were going to end good every time. We just went from there until we got to the end of the third set."
This EIVA tournament marked the third time Penn State and Princeton matched up this season and the second time they played each other in Rec Hall. The loss earlier in the season that the Nittany Lions faced fueled their motivation to win 3-0 at home twice.
"As a team, it was big. It brought us together especially after that heartbreaking loss at their place. I thought we handled them really well back at our place and then we see them in the finals and we knew they were going to play hard. We knew they were going to be shaken by the last match we played against them. It also gave us the opportunity to improve," Aaron Russell said.
This win marked Penn State's 16th-consecutive EIVA Championship title. Reaching this level of excellence takes a true commitment and focus to keep getting better from the coaches and players.
"It means we have had a lot of great players and a lot of great coaching staffs. They make it their mission to make sure they are pursing the excellence that this program has set the bar for. This team has certainly upheld that bar and may have even raised it," Pavlik said.
Winning the EIVA final also means the Nittany Lions will automatically qualify for the NCAA Championship, which gives a sense of relief to the team. The team has been given the No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"It's big for us. It's one more step. We got this far so there's no reason why we should turn back. We're going to Chicago and it doesn't matter if we play Tuesday or Thursday, we're going to go out and compete against any team that we play and look to bring home the national championship," Russell said.
As the Nittany Lions look ahead to playing at Loyola Chicago, the players competed on this court in the beginning of March and already have an idea of what to expect.
"It's pretty important we got a chance to feel what it's like to play in there. It's a small arena, but other than that it's pretty standard. It's important we got to play them because we had the chance to see what worked and what didn't work," Taylor Hammond said.
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