Princeton didn’t really need to beat Penn State in both teams’ final regular season match of the 2019 season. With a four-set victory over Saint Francis the night before, the Tigers had secured the EIVA regular season championship and hosting rights for the conference playoffs.
But what the heck? Why not add a sweep of the 31-time EIVA champion to top it all off?
The 3-0 victory served as a fitting end to the regular season for the record-breaking 2019 Princeton squad. The Tigers’ 13-1 league record is the best conference showing in program history, and winning the regular-season championship marks another first-time accomplishment for head coach Sam Shweisky’s squad.
Leading the way for Princeton in its historic season are juniors George Huhmann (334 kills), Parker Dixon (327 kills), and Greg Luck (207 kills). After hitting above .600 in both of Princeton’s matches last week and collecting 10 blocks between the two matches, Huhmann earned his second consecutive EIVA Player of the Week honor.
A four-set loss to Saint Francis on March 2 serves as the only blemish on Princeton’s EIVA slate. Friday night’s 3-1 win evened the score between the two teams for the season, and appropriately, they’ll face off in Thursday’s EIVA semifinals.
The Tigers' five All-EIVA selections are the most ever in a single-season for the program. pic.twitter.com/eQWHEPYzLl— PrincetonVolley (@PrincetonVolley) April 16, 2019
For its part, Saint Francis, which is led by head coach Mike Rumbaugh in his 21 season with the team, went 9-5 in conference this season, losing to Harvard, Penn State, Princeton, and NJIT (in the final match of the regular season), but collecting impressive wins over George Mason (twice) and Penn State.
It’d be unfair to the other perfectly capable players on Saint Francis’ roster to say the Red Flash lives and dies by its top attacker Michael Fisher, but especially against Princeton, that seems to be true.
In the first meeting between the two teams this season, which SFU won, Fisher had 18 kills and just three errors to hit .517, adding two block assists for good measure.
On Friday, Fisher still ranked as the top offensive contributor on his team, but with 12 kills and five errors, his hitting percentage dropped to .259. For the match, Princeton out-hit Saint Francis .407 to .226. With 15 total blocks in four sets, it looks like Princeton figured out a way to slow down the Red Flash offense, or more specifically, how to frustrate redshirt junior Fisher, the conference’s top hitter with 375 total kills on the season.
The key for Saint Francis in Thursday’s semifinal will be facing the challenge of playing on the road in Princeton’s Dillon Gymnasium and rebounding from a tough final weekend of the regular season that saw them go 0-2. And of course, they’ll be looking for big numbers from Fisher.
The opposite side of the 2019 EIVA playoff bracket features two teams with plenty of history between them: No. 2 George Mason and No. Penn State.
It's official!— Mason Men's Volleyball (@GoMasonMVB) April 14, 2019
Mason will be the No. 2 seed in the EIVA Tournament, hosted by Princeton!
The Patriots meet No. 3 Penn State in the semifinals on Thursday, April 18! #GetPatriotic pic.twitter.com/QhICmEzlwK
Just 10 days ago, George Mason scored its second sweep of the Nittany Lions this season. The season sweep marks a change of tides, as Penn State holds a 29-6 lead in the all-time series between the two teams. In fact, it was only three years ago that George Mason finally ended Penn State’s head-to-head 19-match win streak that stretched over almost eight years (April 2008 to February 2016).
But this year, you’d have to say GMU, coached by former Penn State assistant Jay Hosack, is the favorite. Not only have the Patriots already swept Penn State twice, they cracked the top 15 the third week of the season and only dropped out of the AVCA poll on April 8 after their second loss of the season to Saint Francis.
In its most recent meeting with Penn State, Mason hit .514 as a team and out-aced the Nittany Lions eight to two and out-blocked them nine to two. George Mason outside hitter Hayden Wagner, who ranks first in the conference with 4.31 kills per set, collected 13 kills with just two errors on 20 swings to hit .550.
Penn State has struggled some with injuries throughout the 2019 season and has been missing starting libero Will Bantle since a match on March 30 versus Sacred Heart during which Bantle collided with teammate Brett Wildman and had to be taken off the court on a stretcher.
Key elements for Penn State include offensive weapons Henrik Falck Lauten, Matthew McLaren, Jason Donorovich, Wildman, and Calvin Mende, as well as setters Cole Bogner and Luke Braswell.
Watch the EIVA Playoffs right here on FloVolleyball.
Semifinals: April 18, 2019
No. 2 George Mason vs. No. 3 Penn State, 5 PM ET
No. 1 Princeton vs. No. 4 Saint Francis, 8 PM ET