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Go Fish: Harvard Men's Volleyball Loses to No. 3 Penn State Despite Impressive Back-and-Forth Sets

In February of 2020, the Harvard men's volleyball team takes on then-No. 9 Penn State at the Malkin Athletic Center, which it went on to lose 3-0 to the Lions. This past weekend, the Crimson faced the Pennsylvania school once again, losing in a pair of 3-0 matches.
In February of 2020, the Harvard men's volleyball team takes on then-No. 9 Penn State at the Malkin Athletic Center, which it went on to lose 3-0 to the Lions. This past weekend, the Crimson faced the Pennsylvania school once again, losing in a pair of 3-0 matches. By Zing Gee
By Amy Dong, Crimson Staff Writer

For a crowd that started off the game screaming “Go Fish!”, its constituents ended the match playing a very different game: dodgeball. Electrifying weekend sets between Harvard and Penn State led to amazing plays on the court and free-flying balls off of it –– as onlookers dodged rogue high-speed torpedoes deflected from the action.

Rolling into the Malkin Athletic Center on Friday night, the Crimson (7-13, 0-6 EIVA) found themselves up against one of their toughest opponents yet.

Penn State (20-3, 6-0 EIVA) has yet to lose a conference game –– not only this season but in the past two years. The Lions are currently #3 in the nation for Division I men’s volleyball and briefly snatched the #1 spot last week before a close loss to Ohio State (16-9, 8-3 MIVA) brought them back down.

Though Harvard has often been able to hold their own, even coming off a 3-0 win against American International College (2-20) last week, the conference season has been a bit of a rough go for the team. Crimson has yet to win against a conference team and was swept by Pepperdine (14-10, 4-4 MPSF), #7 in the nation, in mid-March.

Against a team four spots higher in the rankings compared to their former sweepers, the Crimson’s prospects looked a little bit bleak. An unfortunate start to the game for Harvard reflected this, as the Crimson fell behind 10-5 from the get-go; Penn State’s dominance on the attack racked up a streak of points only offset by the occasional service error and the errant Harvard kill.

A Harvard timeout at 13-6 attempted to staunch the bleeding, but a strong kill by Penn State brought their lead to 14-6 right off the timeout. A back-and-forth, consisting mainly of service errors, calmed the momentum momentarily for Harvard to rally back. Yet the Lions would shut them down immediately, running up the score to 19-8, and onwards.

With little concern for the state of their win, the two-bleachers-worth of Penn State supporters alternated between cheering on their star player, Cal Fisher (“Go Fish!”) and heckling their #13 –– not due to a game-related fumble, but because his shoes were too big.

The only Harvard streak that had emerged in the first set was attributed to a fumble by #18 junior Toby Ezeonu from the Lions off an awkward receive. A service ace from Ethan Smith attempted to bridge the gap at 22-14, until a subsequent service error ended the Crimson’s brief reprieve.

Penn State would end the first set at 25-16 in their favor, off a massive kill from Ezeonu to win it.

Harvard’s second set would not fare much better. A service error from Penn State gave the team a free point to begin with, but a miscommunication error from the Crimson on the next play would leave the team fumbling for an unsuccessful receive.

This beginning appeared to set the tone for the rest of the set, as the Crimson’s stray bounces and awkward deflections combined with the Lions’ terrifying pace of play, put the impact in volleyball’s high-impact label.

Penn State’s volleyball isn’t necessarily new to Harvard. The team had played them twice last year, while they held #2 and #4 spots respectively. Harvard had been swept both times.

“It’s the same exact team as last year, I think every single one of them except for one player is like a fifth-year grad student,” explained setter and sophomore James Bardin. “We scouted them last year, and it’s the same deal –– they’re a solid well-rounded team, so they’re tough to stop even though we know them well.”

As the two teams fought back and forth, a kill from Penn State bounced off sophomore Owen Fanning’s face to make the score 2-2. As the Lions began to pull ahead, an awkward save from Harvard sent the ball flying into the crowd, as the screams of the bleachers ousted the groans from the bench. A kill from Harvard brought the score back to 6-5, but a poorly angled bounce off the net from a Fanning receive would only broaden the gap at 7-5.

A service error from Penn, coupled with a beautiful service ace by Fanning allows the team to tie it up at 7-7. Unfortunately, the tie would never be broached, as service errors and unlucky battles with the net kept the two teams at a point stalemate.

Another miscommunication from Harvard led to a series of attempted receives that would end up at the back of the bleachers, to make the score 16-12. Two rallies later, another flying ball off an unfortunate dig made its way into the masses.

A brief pause was granted by another timeout from the Crimson, attempting to cool the team off as Harvard trailed 18-13. Only a serve later, the crowd was once again forced to duck, as a bounce off a block by first-year Zach Berty ran astray.

Receiving troubles would bring forward another Harvard timeout, but troubles, as they often do, arrive in spades. The Lions’ offensive and defensive capabilities overwhelmed an overworked Crimson, with the only remaining points Harvard could pick up in the set stemming from Penn State’s own service errors. A final awkward blocking bounce, a service error, and an intense rally would end the set at 25-15, in favor of Penn State.

What doesn’t kill Harvard, however, ultimately makes them more annoying to play against. Harvard started out the third set with a bombastic block that, despite going out, a couple of Lions players had to duck from. Appearing to fully embrace the prevailing underdog label, Harvard shut down a serving streak from #19 Cal Fisher at 3-1.

A delayed set-up to a huge kill successfully fakes out Penn State, to give Harvard the up at 3-2. From there, a vicious back-and-forth between the teams, complete with a sprinkling of service errors, allowed Crimson to keep pace all the way to a 6-6 tie. Though the Lions would appear to break through the momentum, Harvard would claw their way back to 13-13 from a sequence of good kills, powerful blocks, and the occasional well-placed tip against the opposition.

Where Penn State’s previous leads would leave the Crimson back in the dust, resilience in the third set was where Harvard really began to shine.

“I think we just limited the other team’s serving runs,” Bardin noted. “Those other sets, they were kind of back and forth until Fisher or Wildman would go back and get a seven-point serving run –– and they’d take us out of the set. There was a four-point run in that third set, but that’s it.”

In terms of staying in the game, it was a service error by Ezeonu, following a Harvard timeout at 16-13, that would be the lucky break the Crimson needed.

A huge kill from the Crimson, directed right at Penn State #12 Brett Wildman’s ankle took the score to 18-15, and the momentum would continue on from there. A huge block from Harvard to bring the gap to 18-17 even had the Crimson bench players bench-pressing themselves in celebration, as the team got to its highest point total of the entire game.

As the teams once again stalemate, a solid kill from Berty would ricochet off its Penn State receiver, flinging itself into the crowd to make it 23-21, the first time in the matchup where Crimson had reached over 20 points.

A timeout was called, but this time, by the Lions, in their first called timeout of the game. It was ultimately unsuccessful – the very next play, a Crimson hit off a Penn State blocker flew out, bridging the gap to 23-22. A kill by Ezeonu hauled the Lions to match point, only for a remarkable kill by junior Trevor Schultz off Wildman’s serve to side out the Crimson once again at 24-23.

So close yet so far. A languishing rally would lead to a kill by Penn State’s #8, junior Michal Kowal, which bounced off a Harvard blocker and out into the stands. The Lions would capture the final set, 25-23, and ultimately the game, sweeping Friday 3-0.

Yet, despite the tough numbers on the paper, Friday’s outcome wasn’t necessarily discouraging. Key takeaways from the latter back-and-forth were fundamental in driving improvement in places such as the team’s serve receives. For Bardin, understanding the extent of Fisher and Wildman’s serving prowess seemed to be a valuable piece of knowledge entering Saturday’s match.

“They’re gonna score their points — but if we can just limit their serving runs, we’ll be good,” Bardin said.

And, in a sense, they were. Harvard’s Saturday afternoon seemed to pick up right where last Friday had left off, as both teams entered reinvigorated by the prospect of good volleyball. Though Crimson started off trailing –– and would end trailing to boot –– the Lions could not seem to shake Harvard off its tail, as the two teams traded points all the way til 11-10.

A series of unfortunate serves brought the score to 14-12, in favor of Penn State, until a devastating kill that Harvard’s sophomore Logan Shepherd, playing libero, couldn’t pick up. Ezeonu’s subsequent two service aces forced an unsuccessful timeout for Harvard, but a kill by the Lions only enlarged the gap at 18-12. Service errors and a final Penn State kill would end the first set at 25-17.

It’s at the second set where Friday’s sorrowed sows began to reap its reward. A serve from Penn State’s Fisher kicked off the set by hurtling straight into the net, giving Harvard 1-0. The two teams fumbled their way to 4-3, Lions leading.

A service ace from Penn State, barely knocking over a Crimson player, coupled with a tough block on a Harvard kill left the Lions pulling forward at 6-3, but a service error and a beautiful kill off Penn State’s own block brought the score back 6-5.

An intense back-and-forth on the scoreboard and a combination of service aces and errors on both sides would leave the score at 17-15, with the Lions leading. A huge service ace from Berty brought Harvard to 17-16, once again right up to the edge.

On Berty’s next serve, a rocky receive from Penn State found its way into the hands of senior Ryan Hong.

Hong was a new presence on the court for Harvard against the Lions. Despite not playing on Friday, he was added in on Saturday. Assistant coach Nick Clark felt that the position was well earned.

“Ryan’s been a guy off the bench for us all year long,” Clark explained. “We felt he deserved an opportunity and we wanted to give him a chance.”

The opportunity would pay its dividends. Hong’s tip left Penn State scrambling to receive, and ultimately failing to do so –– bringing the game to its first big tie at 17-17.

A Lions kill would take back its lead, but an answer from Harvard would bring it back 18-18. A topper from Schultz converted into a nail-bitingly intense rally, as both sides swapped chances and just-in-time digs. A cross-court Hong kill deflected beautifully off the Penn State receive and out of bounds, giving Crimson its first lead of the game at 19-18, and forcing a Lions timeout –– their second of the entire weekend.

Unfortunately, it’s the Penn State kill that’s kicked into gear following the break. Fantastic moves from Bardin, setting up for a kill and later an unexpected tip, would bring Harvard momentarily back up at 21-19, until the Lions came back to hunt, tying it up at 21-21 with a timeout for Crimson to boot.

A promising chance for Harvard with a kill from sophomore Kade McGovern was deflected off a Penn State arm into the bleachers, but a service error would bring the teams even at 22-22. It was once again a service ace from Ezeonu that sent Harvard into another timeout.

Though a startling echo of their third set last night, the Crimson wasn’t ready to repeat the narrative just yet. A strong Harvard block off a deadly Wildman spike ties up the game at 23-23. A Lions counter is swiftly answered by Harvard, bringing the game to 24-24, and forcing the matchup's first deuce.

For a team whose first matchup had ended in a brutal 25-15 loss, forcing a deuce against the #3 team in the country had seemed impossible. Clark credited the shift, not just from the people, but also from the plays.

“We switched up a few of our defensive schemes, and it worked for us,” Clark explained. “We had a couple more blocks, and we dug a lot more balls, and that was really important – that was probably the big takeaway.”

The two teams’ late-game stalemate made for a nail-biting scene. Penn State’s kill wrestled forward a point to get ahead, before the answering Harvard block evened up the score all the way to 26-26.

It’s when an ill-placed receive from Harvard sends the ball ricocheting into the crowd, that the Lions appeared to be in the clear. Up 27-26, with Cal Fisher’s serve next up on the block, a player whose number of service aces rivaled only those of two Olympic medalists, the match appeared to be set.

Fisher’s ball flew up in the air, as the Harvard bench jeered.

And smashed straight into the net.

Service error, 27-27. The Crimson were still in the game, even as a Penn block brought the score back into their rhythmic back-and-forth: 28-27.

Unfortunately for Harvard, Wildman’s next serve would be the Lion’s last. A devastating service ace that sent the crowd reeling, the second set was snatched for Penn State, 29-27.

The invigorating second match paved the way for a tense and, if possible, even harder-hitting third, as the Lions snatched an early lead and didn’t let go. Service aces from Ezeonu and Wildman proved deadly to handle. A service error from Penn State would bring the game to a tie, and a mishandle on a dig from the Lions shot its way back into the crowd to give the Crimson a temporary 9-8 lead.

An exhausted two teams traded both kills and fumbles in equal parts. Penn State’s Wildman barely misses a kill mid-air, and barely misses colliding with the referee on the sideline to boot. The play gives the Crimson an 11-9 lead on the scoreboard, and the Lion’s #6 Cole Bogner a towel and pseudo-timeout, as the crowd watches the graduate student mop up the court.

The net errors, unfortunately, appeared to be contagious. Crimson relinquished its lead from multiple kill misfires, and though a Bardin tip provided a brief lifeline for the 12-11 lead, the two would tread down their well-worn path of a point stalemate.

A service error from Harvard paved the way for the Lions’ final wind, going on a five-point tear to grab a 20-16 lead before another Crimson timeout attempted to stem the momentum. The band-aid would stop the bleeding, but would not heal the wound, however –– as the teams traded hits, Harvard couldn’t find a way to pull ahead.

An electrifying weekend would go the way of the world as, according to T.S. Elliot: not with a bang, but with a whimper. A final Crimson service error gave Penn State the win and the sweep, ending the third set at 25-21.

Despite the back-to-back sweeps, the experience was ultimately positive. For assistant coach Nick Clark, the noticeable growth from the team, even in such a short weekend stint, was admirable.

“I thought we got better from last night,” Clark said. “The team showed up, and they fought the whole time, and said, ‘we’re not gonna go down without a fight.’ I think that’s really important, and it showed: we had them in set two, it was really close, and it was back-and-forth in set three, so I’m really proud of the way we played.”

As for the players, the opportunity to face off against a big-name program was big in itself.

“These are my favorite matches, against highly ranked teams,” Bardin grinned. “I think there’s almost less stress in a lot of ways because you’re the underdog, so you can just come out and have fun. Playing at a high level –– it’s the best part of the game.”

Their high-level opponents won’t be going away anytime soon. Harvard looks forward to a stream of conference opponent games, each more critical as the last as the group heads into the dusk of volleyball season still winless. Crimson will be traveling to N.J. this coming Friday, April 7th, to face off against the New Jersey Institute of Technology (8-14, 2-5 EIVA).

In terms of their soon-to-be opponents, Clark only had four words to say: “Get ready for Friday.”
— Staff writer Amy Dong can be reached at amy.dong@thecrimson.com

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