PSU men's volleyball team eyes upset in NCAA semifinals
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When Penn State men's volleyball coach Mark Pavlik walks into the gymnasium to begin practice, he often finds his players goofing around.
Some play two-on-two basketball. Some play two-on-two volleyball. Others play a game that requires setting or bumping a volleyball through the basketball hoop.
Pavlik smiles. He doesn't see his players' hijinks as evidence of a cavalier attitude toward their sport. He believes it is a reflection of how much they enjoy being together.
“I probably know like five other people other than (in) my own sport at the university,” said redshirt sophomore outside hitter Nick Goodell. “We're always hanging out together.”
Perhaps that chemistry is part of the reason the young Nittany Lions managed to play their way into the NCAA semifinals. Penn State, with just one senior in its starting rotation, will face top-seeded Brigham Young at 11 p.m. Thursday at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. The winner faces UC-Irvine or Loyola Chicago on Saturday for the NCAA title.
The Nittany Lions earned the semifinal berth by winning their 15th straight Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association title. Certainly Pavlik, in his 19th season as coach, is accustomed to winning EIVA titles, but he said this year was different.
“This is the toughest EIVA in my career,” said Pavlik, who guided Penn State to the national title in 2008. “The fact that we came through this year's EIVA championship with two 3-0 wins speaks volumes.
“I don't think I would have anticipated that a month ago.”
The Nittany Lions' recent improvement — maybe not coincidentally — mirrored Goodell's progress.
An Ambridge graduate, Goodell had a strong redshirt freshman campaign that saw him finish ninth in the nation in hitting percentage (.331). In last year's NCAA semifinal, Goodell tied for the team lead with 15 kills in a loss to eventual champ UC-Irvine.
But at the start of the 2013 season, Goodell struggled to find rhythm with freshman setter Taylor Hammond. Additionally, senior opposite hitter Tommy Comfort was playing well, so Goodell's opportunities were limited.
Goodell and Hammond finally found their touch in late March, and Goodell rode the newfound comfort level to an all-tournament performance in the EIVA.
“(He) balanced out our offense a little bit more and made us potent from both antennas,” Pavlik said. “Our team has gotten better with Nick's improvement.”
“It's so easy (for me) to play well when everyone else is playing well, too,” Goodell said.
But can the Nittany Lions play well enough to upset BYU?
The Cougars (25-4) are the top-ranked team in the nation and boast national player of the year candidate Taylor Sander. Pavlik said the key to beating the Cougars is to put service pressure on them and make their offense “predictable.”
He added, however, that BYU has the weapons to score even if opponents know where the ball is coming from.
“They play big-boy volleyball,” Pavlik said.
Penn State enters the semifinals with relatively few expectations from observers. Penn State was given the No. 4 (lowest) seed. Even at-large selection UC-Irvine was seeded No. 2.
That's fine by Goodell. He believes the Nittany Lions are just now starting to play their best.
“I think as long as we play the way we can,” he said, “I'd put us against anyone else in the country.”
Chuck Curti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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