PALO ALTO, Calif -- There is no joy in losing, but the adversity Penn State went through this season and overcame is a victory in and of itself, despite losing in the semifinals of the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championships to Lewis University, Thursday night.
The Nittany Lions suffered through early-season losses and multiple injuries and were never a lock to reach the NCAA championship.
“It’s the most unique season I’ve ever had,” said 21-year head coach Mark Pavlik. “I jokingly referred to this season as the 'Roll With the Punches Tour 2015.”The players suffered more obstacles in one season than most do in their four-year careers.
“It was difficult for me to come in my senior season and expect one thing and have the exact opposite happen,” said All American outside hitter, Aaron Russell. “It was a little discouraging, but I remember every time me and Matt (Seifert) would go in and talk to Pav (Coach Pavlik) he would always say ‘Keep this team together.’”
The team’s odyssey began at their first tournament when they flew to Hawaii and it took 43 hours to get there. Exhausted from the trip and having to adjust to a four time-zone difference left the team emotionally and physically exhausted.
“The start was me putting them through a travel meat grinder,” Pavlik said. “It took us 43 hours to get to Hawaii to stay for 72 hours. We never were able to adjust to that.”
The team got home and four days later were on an 8-hour bus ride to Muncie, Indiana to play Ball State and Fort Wayne, both matches they lost.
The following week, they opened the season against the two toughest teams in the Midwest, Lewis and Loyola.
“We barely get back from Muncie and we have to prepare for the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country,” Pavlik said. “By the time we catch our breath we are 0-6.”
But Pavlik saw his team wasn’t playing poorly, they were just victims of circumstance.
“The biggest challenge was to keep them believing in their strengths,” Pavlik said. “All I want to be is 1-0 after our next match. Doesn’t matter what happened before, let’s go 1-0. They looked at it as they are going to come to the gym and train hard and do what we do and control what we can and see where it plays out.”
A team meeting led by Russell and redshirt junior Matt Seifert also helped calm the team down.
“When you are not getting the results you expect it can become frustrating but I don’t think anyone ever gave up or lost faith in the team,” Seifert said. “We knew we had a good team we just had to figure it out and I think we did a really good job achieving that.”
Just as the team was regaining its confidence and had won three straight matches they were besieged by injuries.
“We got hit with the injury bug, five concussions and four sprained ankles over the course of the school year,” Pavlik said. “We just didn’t have enough bodies at one point.”
It was so bad at one point, assistant coaches Jay Hosack and Colin McMillan were pressed into service playing during practices. But even that didn’t rattle the team and in some weird way united them even more.
“I think it was a little different having them on the court but I think it kept a light mood,” Russell said. “Whenever they would do something funny like hit a ball way out of bounds it kept us loose.”
“I never saw any sense of panic, but really there was nothing to panic over,” Pavlik said. “Our season wasn’t over it was just stuff happened that we couldn’t control. It wasn’t even a hole, it was just the evolution of what a season brings.”
The team had a turning point when they came out to California to play USC, Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State. They swept all three and it gave the team some much needed validation.
“I don’t think a lot of people thought we were going to win those matches and we went out there and swept everybody,” Seifert said. “We had been building and improving for so long and everything we’ve done we created a new attitude. I think we put ourselves in a good position to win.”
It carried over to the EIVA Championship, which Penn State won to earn the right to face Hawaii in the play in game for the NCAA Championship.
The team defeated Hawaii 3-1 that led them to face the No. 1 seeded Lewis, a team that beat them twice during the regular season and again on Thursday night.