With wins in Thursday night’s EIVA semifinals, Princeton and Penn State advanced to the conference championship match, to be played on Saturday night inside Princeton’s Dillon Gymnasium.
Princeton, the No. 1 seed and host of the conference tournament, downed No. 4 St. Francis in three sets, 25-23, 25-21, 25-19. The win marks the second consecutive season that the Tigers have advanced to the conference final.
A year ago, after upsetting top-seeded George Mason in the semifinals, Princeton lost in four sets to Harvard in the EIVA championship. On Saturday, the team will get another chance to win its first conference title since 1998. A win over Penn State would also send the Tigers to the national tournament for the first time since that same year.
So far the stories of the 1997 and 1998 teams have closely mirrored that of the 2018 and 2019 squads. After a loss in the conference championship in 1997, Princeton turned around and won the league the following year, earning its first and only trip to the NCAA Tournament to date.
In 2019, Princeton has put together one of its best seasons in program history, collecting a 13-1 conference record and closely battling several nationally ranked nonconference teams. However, that one league loss came at the hands of none other than St. Francis, and in Thursday’s semifinal, the Red Flash came out strong initially, even holding an 18-11 lead in the first set.
Princeton’s ability to string together sets of points and score from behind the service line (the Tigers tallied nine aces in the match), helped lift them out of that hole and ultimately win in straight sets.
“I’m pleased with the guys’ resilience,” said Shweisky. “I thought we started off shaky as Saint Francis came out on fire, but we responded well in the first set and battled back.”
Senior outside hitter Kendall Ratter led the Tigers with 11 kills and just two errors to hit .500. Junior Parker Dixon matched the same clip with seven kills and no errors. George Huhmann, the newly crowned EIVA Player of the Year, collected eight kill, three block assists, and three aces.
The opposite semifinal featured much closer matchup between No. 2 George Mason and No. 3 Penn State. During the regular season, Penn State lost both matches with GMU in straight sets. But on Thursday night, the Nittany Lions set the tone early, hitting .556 with 18 kills in the first set.
From there, the teams traded momentum and set victories all the way through the end of the match. In the fifth set, Penn State once again hit above .500 (.533) and held George Mason to a .143 clip, winning 15-9.
“We played one of the most disciplined matches of the season,” Penn State head coach Mark Pavlik said. “When you play a team three times, we know that you're going to good data on them, they got good data on us, I thought we made enough plays defensively, and we finished plays early.”
The 31-time EIVA champion Nittany Lions were led by Brett Wildman, who set a new career high with 22 kills and just two errors to hit .556. Both teams had very efficient offensive matches, with Penn State barely out-hitting George Mason .407 to .336.
Saturday’s match will mark the third meeting between Penn State and Princeton so far this year. The top-seeded Tigers won both previous matches in four sets. But, as George Mason learned in the semifinals, regular season results don’t count for much when it comes to the playoffs.
Watch the EIVA championship match on Saturday, April 20, at 7 PM ET, streaming live right here on FloVolleyball.