PU Men’s Volleyball Tops NJIT To Win EIVA Crown, Surging Tigers Will Face North Greenville in NCAAs
CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT: Members of the Princeton University men’s volleyball team display the trophy they earned for topping New Jersey Institute of Technology 3-1 (23-25, 27-25, 27-25, 25-18) in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association final last Saturday evening. The Tigers, now 15-12 overall and riding a 10-match winning streak, will be facing North Greenville University (20-5) in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on May 1 at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)
By Bill Alden
When the Princeton University men’s volleyball team fell 3-1 to Penn State on March 18, it looked like the squad was going nowhere this season.
The defeat left the Tigers at 5-12 overall and 4-6 Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association and out of the mix for the EIVA playoffs.
But Princeton head coach Sam Shweisky saw something special in his squad’s performance that night.
“We took a set off of them and you could see that we had really improved from before,” said Shweisky, referring to a 3-0 loss to the Nittany Lions on February 4. “It was a better product, it wasn’t about winning. They beat us, they were better than us but we felt proud about what we put out there. We also felt excited about learning.”
The Tigers defeated St. Francis 3-0 a day later and haven’t lost since, producing some exciting volleyball along the way. They ended the season on a seven-game winning streak, finishing in fourth place and earning a spot in the EIVA playoffs.
Last week, Princeton defeated St. Francis 3-0 in the opening round of the playoffs on Wednesday, setting up a matchup against the top-seeded and second-ranked Penn State, the tournament host a day later. Princeton turned the tables on the Nittany Lions, pulling out a thrilling 3-2 win to earn a spot in the final. Last Saturday, the Tigers defeated New Jersey Institute of Technology 3-1 to earn the EIVA title.
Now the Tigers, 15-12 and riding a 10-match winning streak, are headed to California where they will face North Greenville (20-5) in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on May 1 at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, Calif.
In reflecting on the team’s late surge, Shweisky points to an increased emphasis on defense.
“It always perplexes me that we can’t be a better defensive team,” said Shweisky, who took the helm of the Princeton program in the 2010 season.
“We really put a lot of energy into it. Like anything else, you can lead the horse to water but it is when they start doing it and buying in, that is when the change started to happen. We had a bunch of digs and it was oh wow, this is starting to pay off.”
The emergence of sophomore Ben Harrington as an offensive force played a major role in the late run.
“At the beginning, you could see that this guy is incredibly talented but that he needs to learn the college game,” said Shweisky of Harrington, who leads the Tigers in kills (260) and kills per set (3.17), along with service aces (49), and was named the EIVA Newcomer of the Year.
“He is hitting the ball out, he is making errors. Toward that back half of the season, it was wow. He has this incredible balance of being one of the fiercest competitors I have ever seen with a fire to compete and incredibly coachable. He listens and wants to get better and learn. He is tremendous.”
Starting the EIVA playoffs with the 25-21, 25-21, 25-23 win over St. Francis gave the Tigers a lift as they headed into their semifinal clash against Penn State.
“You fight to get the higher seed and you want to get the bye because guys are a little banged up and you want some rest,” said Shweisky. “But man, we walked into the semis and we had already played a playoff match. You are not sure if you are going to have gas left in the tank, that is the only concern. But if you have gas in the tank, it is good to have a few miles on the road.”
In facing the Nittany Lions for a third time, Princeton was looking to play its game.
“They are a tremendous team, we need to try to focus on our side,” said Shweisky. “If we execute a little better, if we receive a little better, if we serve a little tougher, if we block a little better and believe in ourselves, it is can you do it when it counts.”
After winning first two sets against Penn State, Princeton dropped the next two and trailed 9-6 in the fifth set when Shweisky took a timeout.
“I can’t think about winning or losing, I just have to think about the next point, that is what I preach to them,” said Shweisky. “I don’t remember what I said but I am sure it had to do with love and supporting each other. If you think about what just happened or winning or losing, it pulls you away from the moment.”
The Tigers ended up pulling away to a stunning 25-15, 28-26, 23-25, 17-25, 15-12 triumph.
“It was just incredible, it was really special,” said Shweisky of the match which saw Harrington contribute 21 kills, eight digs, and two service aces.
“So much of the conversation was enjoy it but stay focused. We had to bottle it, some of that stuff. That is all well and good but you have to come into the final prepared because that NJIT team is dynamite.”
In the final against NJIT, Princeton dropped the first set but then found a rhythm as it prevailed 23-25, 27-25, 27-25, 25-18 with Harrington starring again, coming up with career-high 24 kills and adding seven digs to get named as the tourney MVP.
“You could feel the nerves, more so than with Penn State because we were such the underdog,” said Shweisky. “You could feel the tension, we felt very evenly matched with them. We play NJIT a lot and it was pretty 50/50. On any given night we knew we could beat them, we also knew they could beat us. It was just play and calm down.”
Tiger senior Jerod Nelsen credited the squad’s depth and chemistry with helping it earn the title.
“That has really been the culture of this team, adding value in small ways,” said Nelsen, who had three assists and a dig in the win.
“I think everyone on the court and off the court is really critical to our success. Coach Shweisky says ‘hey, it doesn’t matter how much you actually add to the box score, it is how much you add to everybody else.’ We have one of the rowdiest benches in the country. I think that really seeps on the floor, a lot of joy, a lot of gratitude and a lot of the guys doing the dirty work and whatever they can to help the team.”
While Shweisky was thrilled to see his squad win the title, the program’s third overall and the second of his tenure, the biggest joy came in having another game and the chance to keep working with his players.
“At the end of the day, it is the experience,” said Shweisky. “You love the experience and you love spending time with each other. We get to go on another road trip out to California, how great is that. It is wow, how we have grown in four months and how beautiful is it that we get to keep going.”
The Tigers will have to keep growing to overcome a tough North Greenville squad with the victor slated to face defending national champion Hawaii (24-5) in the quarterfinals on May 3.
“It is going to be a tough match and I think it is the same mindset and same conversation about staying in the moment, staying process-oriented, and taking one step at a time,” said Shweisky.
“We are going to take it like we take every match. We have the utmost respect and appreciation for the talent of the opponent we are playing. It is put our best foot forward and try to do our best.”
Nelsen is looking to extend the season as long as possible.
“I love this team so much and to see the adversity we went through in the beginning of the year and then to have a 10-0 match win streak is great,” said Nelsen. “It is really special to have a lot of those moving parts at the beginning, have some problems, and need a little bit of oil. We figured it out in this back half of the season. It is a team, I don’t want to leave at any point. My time is coming up. We have three, four games left at the max. It is a team I want to be part of every step of the way and can’t get enough of.”
Shweisky, for his part, is primed to have a great time out in California.
“It has served us so well to not think about the outcome,” said Shweisky. “No matter who we play, I am looking forward to having fun, working really hard, and putting a good product on the floor that we can be really proud of. If we can give our best effort, that is all we can ask for. Then it depends on how the other team plays. It is up to them, what they can match with us effort-wise, talent-wise and see where the chips fall. I am so proud of the guys and am really appreciative to have this opportunity to do something really cool and really special.”