Penn State’s 2023 postseason run is off to a strong start.
The Nittany Lions took down George Mason on Thursday evening in four sets, advancing to the EIVA Championship to take on No. 15 Princeton at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Penn State came in on a six-match win streak to end the regular season; the team also went undefeated against the EIVA for the second-straight regular season.
On the other side of the court, the Patriots came into Thursday with a 13-14 record and began the tournament as the No. 4 seed in the conference.
George Mason, which will host this season’s NCAA Championship, took down the tournament’s fifth-seeded Harvard Crimson on Wednesday in five sets, sneaking by with a 15-12 advantage in Set 5 to advance past the first round of the tournament.
Penn State and George Mason last met on April 7 and 8 in Fairfax, Virginia; the blue and white swept both of those matches.
To kick things off Thursday, Penn State got out to a 10-6 lead, largely due to its length at the net and mistake-free volleyball. The Patriots quickly adjusted though, tying the initial set with a 5-1 run.
George Mason didn’t slow down from there, using a kill from junior outside hitter Omar Hoyos to take a two-point lead and force a timeout from Penn State coach Mark Pavlik.
Soon after, the Nittany Lions faced a potentially significant setback: junior middle blocker Toby Ezeonu injured his left ankle, leaving the match with the help of trainers and teammates as silence befell the Rec Hall crowd. He did not return.
Ezeonu had been a force up the middle throughout the regular season, racking up 201 kills and 83 blocks across 26 matches.
“He’s got a boot on. Nothing broken,” Pavlik said after the match of Ezeonu’s injury.
George Mason continued to grow its Set 1 lead by taking advantage of a Penn State team that looked out of rhythm.
The Patriots went on to reach set point, letting an attack from Nittany Lion opposite hitter Cal Fisher fly out of bounds to take a 1-0 lead in the match.
It was just the second time this season that the Nittany Lions had dropped a set to a conference opponent.
“We stuck to the game plan, and I think that helped us out a lot in that first set,” Hoyos said.
Penn State came out with a fiery energy in the second set. Fisher fired in two kills and an ace in the set’s first eight points, and graduate student outside hitter Brett Wildman brought some intensity by diving into the Nittany Lion bench to save a ball, unsuccessfully.
The chemistry between two Nittany Lion veterans, setter Cole Bogner and Fisher, was steaming hot in Set 2; nine of Fisher’s ten kills in the set were assisted by Bogner.
“Cole was putting me in a lot of good positions,” Fisher said. “[He] was able to give me a lot of one-on-ones which makes my life pretty easy.”
Penn State maintained a solid lead throughout the set, not allowing the Patriots back within a few points.
Fisher’s attacking dominance helped the Nittany Lions rebound from the Set 1 loss, taking the second set, 25-17.
In Set 3, the blue and white went on an early 7-2 run. Fisher continued to stay scorching hot on the attack, while Wildman provided strong support with three kills by the time the score reached 11-9 in his team’s favor.
The tandem of Hoyos and redshirt freshman Liam French led the George Mason attack, with both in double-digit kills by the midway point of Set 3. Both players were north of 250 kills on the season coming into the match.
A five-point run from the Patriots gave them a 15-13 lead in Set 3, causing Pavlik to burn a timeout.
After the timeout, it was a back-and-forth battle. George Mason maintained a slight lead until 19-19, when it used a timeout of its own. The Patriots were attempting to give Penn State’s its first conference match this season with more than one lost set.
The teams tied once again at 21, where Fisher continued to shine bright. He notched kill No. 20 of the match, a new season-high. A combined block between Bogner and sophomore Owen Rose gave Penn State a two point lead.
Penn State took a 2-1 match lead with a kill from who else but Fisher, going into the fourth set looking to close it out.
Pavlik’s team owned the serving game early in Set 4; Bogner recorded two of three Penn State aces to take a 7-3 lead.
“I think our serving game came through for us as the match wore on,” Pavlik said.
Outside of a few serving errors, Penn State largely owned the fourth set the rest of the way. Bogner continued to connect with the rest of the Nittany Lions with his precise passing, and Penn State took a 19-14 lead into a timeout.
Penn State went on an 8-1 run to secure its spot in the EIVA Championship, as Rose found a hole in the Patriot defense to win the last set.
“Hats off to Penn State,” George Mason coach Jay Hosack said. “They’re obviously number three in the country for a reason; they just make you play volleyball.”
Fisher led the way with 23 kills on .514 hitting, while Bogner totaled 45 assists.
The Nittany Lions now move onto the EIVA Championship for the first time since the 2021 season, when they took the conference crown against George Mason.
It’ll be Penn State and Princeton on Saturday; the Tigers eliminated the Nittany Lions in the semifinals of the EIVA Tournament last season in five sets.
Wildman said that the team isn’t focused on revenge for last year’s postseason meeting.
“We just want to win the championship,” Wildman said. “We don’t really care about anything else.”
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