Penn State out to prove it belongs
Sunder aiming to lead home-state Nittany Lions to national title
LOS ANGELES -- The Beach Boys wished they all could be California girls. In men’s volleyball, not everyone wishes they all could be California boys.
Especially not Penn State, where half of the starting lineup is actually from Pennsylvania in a sport normally thought of and often dominated by, well, Californians. And these are really tall, strong men, just like Joe Sunder, the 6-foot-7 Penn State senior outside hitter who is from Greensburg, not far from Pittsburgh.
“Just because they’re from California doesn’t mean they’re necessarily any better or worse,” Sunder said, whose Nittany Lions (23-5) take on UC Irvine (24-5) on Thursday in the first national semifinal of the 2012 NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship. Host USC (23-5) plays Lewis (26-6) in the other semifinal match.
Not that Penn State’s roster doesn’t have California players. There are four them, including standout freshman libero Connor Curry.
“What it does for us is it gives us a place to have a meal at someone’s house when we make a trip out here,” Sunder said. “Other than that,” and he paused as senior teammate Edgardo Goas chimed in, “they’re just volleyball players.”
That’s not lost on UC Irvine coach John Speraw, whose Anteaters won the 2007 and 2009 national titles, beating Penn State in the semifinals both times.
“I think years ago people may have had this perception that Midwest or East Coast volleyball wasn’t as good, but I know in ’94 I was on the [UCLA] team that lost to Penn State when they won their first championship,” Speraw said.
“We were probably pretty arrogant at the time but it taught us a good lesson.”
As it is in most sports, everyone knows everyone. For example, Sunder trained last summer with Irvine senior opposite Carson Clark, who was the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament MVP -- “I can honestly say he’s one of the best big hitters I’ve ever seen,” Clark said -- and USC star Tony Ciarelli trained in a similar setting with Lewis’s Jay Petty.
Speraw got to coach Sunder in the Pan Am Games last summer and also was Curry’s club coach.
“The perception maybe from the general media or maybe from your casual volleyball fan is that volleyball is only played on the West Coast, but everyone’s who’s in volleyball knows it’s played nationwide,” Speraw said. “I think if you look at the  Olympic team I was a part of, most of those guys were non-California guys.”
It all adds up nicely for 18th-year Penn State coach Mark Pavlik, whose resume includes winning the 2008 naitonal title. Penn State also won it all in 1994 under Tom Peterson, who was succeeded by Pavilk the next year.
“Pennsylvania has the longest-running state-sanctioned boys championship in the country,” Pavlik said. “We started in 1933. We might not have the number of participants simply because of population, but we’ve got some coaches who have been in this game a long time who coach the game really well. And there are a lot of kids coming up who are like Joe.”
Sunder touches 12 feet, which, in basketball terms, would make him quite a dunker, which is why Pavlik said, “He jumped on the team.”
“Physically he does some very impressive things,” UC Irvine coach John Speraw said. “You just know when everything lines up and gets a good set and he’s got a good approach, he’s going to hit that ball at an incredibly high point, higher than actually we’ve seen from anybody in this league. We talk about it, but when we get on the court and watch him hit a ball it’s going to be an eye-opening experience for these guys. He plays at a higher level than anybody in the MPSF [Mountain Pacific Sports Federation].”
He’s part of a program that has seen Pavlik bring Penn State to the national semifinal 14 times in a row, an indicator of how much the Nittany Lions have dominated the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association and the automatic bid that comes with winning it.
“I think the guys understand the unique challenge that’s in front of them,” Pavlik said. “And I think they do a good job of passing it down year after year after year. There’s a standard that they expect out of each other. The gateway to the NCAA championships is through the EIVA for us. I don’t think we underestimate anybody that comes across our schedule.”
Two of Penn State’s losses came to the teams on the other side of the bracket, a defeat at Lewis in January and another at USC in March.
“The second thing that happens is when we get the opportunity to play MIVA and MPSF teams,” Pavlik continued, “these guys use that as a mile marker and a chance to really see where we are in the season and be able to walk back in the gym and see what we have to get better at. It’s a process these guys understand very well.”
Now, if they beat Irvine, they’ll play for the title on Saturday.
“If you would ask anyone here it’s something I would never dreamed of my freshman year,” said Sunder, the EIVA MVP and a second-team All-American.
“Pav gave me a shot. I was a local guy, a walk-on, it’s really blossomed into a great opportunity. That would be the ultimate ending to a good story.”