PU Men’s Volleyball Reaches New Heights, Lifted by Huhmann’s Towering Presence
RISING FORCE: Princeton University men’s volleyball player George Huhmann, left, goes up for the ball in recent action. Last Saturday, junior star Huhmann contributed 11 kills, four blocks, and an ace as Princeton defeated Penn State 3-0 (25-19, 25-16, 25-20). The triumph capped the best regular season in program history as the Tigers improved to 15-12 overall and 13-1 Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (EIVA), winning the outright league title and earning home court in the playoffs. Huhmann, for his part, was named the Uvaldo Acosta Memorial EIVA Player of the Year. Princeton will host fourth-seeded St. Francis in a semifinal contest on April 18 with victor advancing to the title game on April 20 against the winner of the other semi pitting Penn State against George Mason. (Photo by Beverly Schaefer, provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Justin Feil
George Huhmann is a unique player and he has helped the Princeton University men’s volleyball team to a unique accomplishment.
The Princeton junior had 27 kills and 10 blocks over two games as the Tigers wrapped up their first Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (EIVA) regular-season championship with a weekend sweep of St. Francis and Penn State.
Princeton secured the outright title and the chance to host the EIVA playoffs when it avenged its only loss in the EIVA with a 25-19, 25-16, 20-25, 25-23 win over St. Francis on Friday. Princeton then improved to 15-12 overall and 13-1 in the EIVA with a 3-0 win (25-19, 25-16, 25-20) over Penn State on Saturday.
“It’s something none of the guys on the current team have ever done,” said Huhmann, a 6’11 native of St. Louis, Mo. “It’s our goal every year to win the EIVA. We’ve been working hard since September to achieve this goal.”
With the EIVA title in hand, Princeton will have home court for the conference playoffs, hosting fourth-seeded St. Francis in a semifinal contest on April 18 with victor advancing to the title game on April 20 against the winner of the other semi pitting Penn State against George Mason.
“It means a lot,” said Huhmann of hosting the tourney. “No Princeton team has ever hosted the conference tournament. I think we play a lot better when we’re at home. We’ve only lost one or two matches at home. That would be good for us. We have a great crowd and fan base. We have a lot fans come support us. It’s a chance to make history, which I think motivates us.”
Things have been looking up since Huhmann and his class arrived at Princeton. They made a quick impact and began to turn the mindset of the squad along with the results. The Tigers started to look more confidently at their matches. Last year, they picked up momentum when they beat perennial power Penn State twice, then beat them again to start this season.
“The tide starts to change a little bit when you look at that junior class that’s beaten them three time and lost to them twice,” said Princeton head coach Sam Shweisky.
“You can sort of feel they are the centerpiece of that energy and we’re getting the most kills out of that group. You feel that we’re not the underdog, we’re actually the favorite. It’s an interesting place to be in, and now you have to manage those expectations and that’s a different role.”
Huhmann contributed immediately upon arrival. The product of St. Louis University High School was named the EIVA Newcomer of the Year after leading the league in hitting percentage as a freshman playing middle. He played more opposite last year as a sophomore when he earned honorable mention All-America honors.
“He’s a real special player,” said Shweisky. “Being 6’11 helps and he jumps very well. He touches almost 12 feet on his jump, but on top of that he has a really good arm and really good mechanics. He uses his body and twist and torque the way we design it and would like it to look. And he’s extremely versatile. He has a spin serve, a float serve, he can block middle, right side. He can do so many things. And he’s grown. He’s not very demonstrative and doesn’t talk trash and barely calls for his own sets. He’s a quiet kid, but he’s incredibly confident. And the bigger the moment, the better he plays. That’s been really fascinating to see. When the game is on the line, and it’s a big game, he’s going to have a big performance. That’s been his M.O. the last two years, even as a freshman too, but he’s getting more balls now.”
This year, Huhmann has taken another step that makes him unique. The Tigers have been using him as a hybrid between middle and opposite in a set they call “wildcard.” It’s allowed him to be in more of the action.
“The things we’re having him do, I’ve never seen anybody do,” said Shweisky of Huhmann, who was named as the Uvaldo Acosta Memorial EIVA Player of the Year, the first Tiger player to earn that honor.
“He hits middle in the front row for us for two, sometimes three, rotations. He hits opposite out of the back row. It’s an incredibly taxing position that we sort of invented to fit his skill set. He’s literally super human. And it’s hard to game plan against because we can flex in and out a lot.”
Huhmann has been a reliable force for the Tigers, but they’ve been getting strong contributions all season from a variety of players. In the regular-season finale against Penn State, senior Kendall Ratter had nine kills, four aces, four digs and two blocks. Parker Dixon, a junior, had eight kills and four blocks. Sophomore setter Joe Kelly delivered 30 assists.
In the home-court clinching win over St. Francis, junior Greg Luck had six kills and five blocks. Dixon had nine kills and seven digs. Another senior, Corry Short, also had seven digs.
“I don’t think we’re surprised,” said Huhmann. “We knew we were going to be good this year. Just working hard in the gym all fall, we’ve just been focusing on what we need to do to get better and what we need to do to focus on for games like these. We know we have all the pieces we need to win a championship this year.”
Like last year, though, Princeton started slowly. The Tigers were 2-7 when they opened conference play. But it was the quality of teams that they were playing that led to their record, not poor performance.
“Playing teams like UCLA and Pepperdine and Hawaii, playing those teams prepared us well for conference matches,” said Huhmann.
“I also think our team is good at adapting to changes. We have a lot of different lineups. Everyone is really good at being a good teammate for each other and not worrying about where they want to play on the court. They give it everything they’ve got when they’re on the court. Playing tough matches in the beginning of the year helped. Winning in conference has come from being selfless on the court and everyone has been playing the role that’s asked of them.”
For Huhmann, that role has brought a bit of everything, relishing being able to contribute in a number of ways.
“I like playing anywhere on the court,” said Huhmann, who ranks in the EIVA’s top 10 in total kills (337, third), kills per set (3.37, third), hitting percentage (.348, third), points (403, third), total blocks (83, fourth), points per set (4.1, fourth), total attacks (653, fifth), block assists (74, fifth) and solo blocks (nine, 10th). “I like hitting D balls. I get a lot more balls at opposite than middle. I get more of a chance to impact the game. I’m in the game the whole time.”
Huhmann is an even keel player; his emotions never go too high or two low, and he’s noticeably reserved regardless of whether he’s making good or bad plays. He’s always played like that, even when he played other sports like basketball. He saves his excitement for big moments, like clinching the outright EIVA title.
“I expect them to set a lot of balls,” said Huhmann. “I know they’ll set me at crunch time. I expect that from him. My demeanor on the court is calm. When I get a kill or make an error, my reaction is the same. I don’t get down on myself when I make a mistake. I don’t yell and scream when I get a kill. I think that helps my teammates especially in pressure situations. It helps them stay confident.”
The squad has been able to find ways to mesh together on the court to become a stronger unit, building on every experience they have.
“As the season progresses, we’re more together as a team,” said Huhmann.
“We trust each other more. We’re more of a unit. Having over 20 games played together really helps us and it just adds to our confidence level. Throughout the season we improve on each individual skill and we always strive to get better. We’re always in the film room and trying to get better. It’s a continual process. We’re excited to see the product we can put on the court.”
Princeton doesn’t have a lot of seniors, but it has players that have played a lot of games together.
“A lot of the guys on our team are pretty experienced in pressure situations,” said Huhmann.
“So my class – me, Greg, and Parker – we’ve been to the playoffs every year we’ve been here. We played in the EIVA championship last year. Losing that game really motivated us for this year. Playing BYU and Hawaii over spring break put us in pressure situations where we have to step up and play better. That really prepares us. Most of all, having experience, being on the court the last two years, helped us grow some confidence in ourselves.”
The confidence continued to grow through the regular season to produce history for the Princeton as the Tigers worked together to win the EIVA and the chance to host the conference postseason tournament.
“At the end of the day, hosting in theory gives you a better chance because you’re at home to win the whole thing, but that’s really all that matters,” said Shweisky, who was selected as the Bob Sweeney EIVA Coach of the Year for the second time in his career (2010).
“That’s what everyone is doing and trying to win the whole thing so they can go play in the NCAA playoffs. It’s a nice step along the way, but we have to keep our eyes on the bigger goal to make it through that tournament.”