Men's volleyball unable to top nemesis Penn State in five-set thriller

Senior Mark Jones was one of eight seniors who played their last match at the RAC Saturday (Photo by John Irwin).
Senior Mark Jones was one of eight seniors who played their last match at the RAC Saturday (Photo by John Irwin).

After celebrating a tough, five-set win against St. Francis on Friday night (25-19, 22-25, 25-12, 17-25, 16-14), feelings were different for the George Mason men’s volleyball team on Saturday. The Patriots completed its weekend home series with a loss against No. 13-ranked archrival Penn State Nittany Lions in just of a dramatic match at the RAC gym – 23-25, 25-17, 25-19, 25-27, 10-15.

Saturday’s match was not just another chapter of the all-time Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association rivalry. It was extra special for eight players who were about to play their last game at the RAC, the place which has been their second home over the past four years. Mixed feelings of joy and sadness filled the gym early on as these players were recognized for their service on the team.

Mark Jones, Michael Kvidahl, Patrick Maloney, Max McFarland, Javier Perez, Shaun Sibley, Piotr Dabrowski and Andrew Dentler were each escorted to the court by their parents under the loud applause of the home crowd. As a brief profile and list of achievements of each player were introduced by the press announcer, it was clear that they will be much missed next season.

The first six found themselves in the starting line-up and had a great game in their own way, just for the Patriots to come up short against the Nittany Lions – yet  again. Perez registered 40 assists, Mark Jones had 16 kills and three aces, Kvidahl contributed 10 and two, respectively, and Sibley had a hitting percentage of .733 on the night.

“It’s tough right now,” said McFarland, who played every minute of the match and registered nine digs. “It is something that we will definitely get over at some point, but right now – being senior night and everything – we are not happy with the fact that they came out and stole [the win] from us.”

Mason’s head coach Fred Chao commented on the result in a less emotional and more professional manner, but showed compassion for his players who, he thought, “[played] their hearts out.”

“I feel for the guys, it was one of those things in which they invested a lot emotionally, a lot of time and energy,” Chao said, “but at the end of the day we put ourselves in a situation to get in the conference tournament and play for that.”

Mason seemed in the poll position to win the match going into the fourth set, which proved crucial for the outcome of the match. The Patriots (12-11, 8-3 EIVA) were up 2-1 after dominating the second and third sets, and had they not allowed the Nittany Lions (17-6, 11-1 EIVA) to build a six-point lead late in the first set (23-17) with the late 5-0 run they made off Jones’ serve, they could’ve easily celebrated the win.

McFarland suggested that fatigue from the game against St. Francis the night before might have played a part in the first set of Saturday’s match.

“We made it closer than it should’ve been [against St. Francis], which is a bummer, but we came out a little slow in the first set [against Penn State] and then all of the sudden the adrenaline started picking up and we were able to make plays in the second and third sets.”

The fourth set had 10 lead changes. The Patriots’ largest lead was 2 points (15-13), while the Nittany Lions led by three on two occasions – 11-8 and 20-17. In the first case, three big plays by Kvidahl helped Mason go on a 4-0 run and regain the lead, while in the second a kill by Jones, followed by three unforced errors by Penn State players tied the score at 21.

The end of the set was high in emotions. First, Aaron Russell (17 kills) prevented the Patriots from closing the match and tied the score at 24-24. On the next play came the most controversial point of the match. The ball hit the line judge on Penn State’s side of the court and created a confusion about which team the point goes to. A few seconds later the match official rewarded it in favor of the Nittany Lions, an action which angered Mason players on the court and the Patriots’ bench.

“[Penn State’s] libero set the ball in front of the 10-foot line, which is illegal,” said McFarland, who seemed to have the most to say to the official in that situation. “They didn’t call it [and Penn State] ended up winning that point. That’s why I was so mad.”

About a minute later, Kvidahl made an attacking error, thus closing the fourth set at 27-25 in Penn State’s favor.

“It is hard to gauge how that affects the guys, because it affects each of them very differently,” Chao said about the situation. “But I don’t think we lost too much at that point. The reason why we lost that fourth set was [that] maybe we didn’t focus hard enough on the serving-and-passing game as we had before. This got us in a bad situation and we couldn’t get ourselves out of it.”

The Patriots came out strong in the final set and a 4-0 run off Maloney’s serve gave them a 6-4 lead. The momentum switched when the Nittany Lions took a 9-8 lead on a bad set by Perez. They scored two additional unanswered points and comfortably closed the set and match at 15-10.

After the game Chao discussed what he would’ve liked to see done differently on the court. One difference-maker that he focused on was the performance of Pat Sibley, the junior brother of graduating Shaun.

“We needed Pat Sibley to contribute offensively and defensively as well, and [be] steady at his serving,” Chao said. “We could have helped him more if we could’ve passed a little bit steadier through some stretches. This is his first time being in a match like this, under this situation against that opponent. There is some learning that has to be done by going through it.”

For many of the seniors on the Mason roster this would have been the first win against the Nittany Lions in their four seasons on the team. Clearly disappointed in the defeat, McFarland remains nevertheless hopeful that Mason will break Penn State’s hegemony in the conference.

“Every time we get a little closer [to beating them],” McFarland said. “We still haven’t beaten them in my era, but we will next time. We’ve got one more shot [in the EIVA tournament].”

With the win on Saturday, Penn State made a huge step toward securing its first place in regular season and thus earning the privilege of hosting the conference tournament in the end of April. With its current record, Mason has already guaranteed one of the other three spots in the semi-finals, and another clash between the two rivals is more than likely to take place.

Before that, the Patriots have to close their EIVA play with a three-game road trip. The first opponent during that stretch will be Sacred Heart University, which the Patriots will face on Friday, April 5 at 7 p.m. At the same time, Penn State will travel to Lees-McRae College for a non-conference match.  

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