The EIVA Championship match was just a few points old when St. Francis’ Jeff Hogan unloaded a big swing right into the waiting arms of Penn State’s Aidan Albrecht.
The redshirt junior rejected the swing, with the solo block giving the Nittany Lions an early lead and igniting a very vocal Rec Hall crowd.
“When I saw that I freaked out,” setter Luke Braswell said after the match. “That was awesome.”
The rejection gave a huge emotional boost to the Nittany Lions, and they rode it all the way to a 3-0 sweep of the Red Flash for the EIVA title and an automatic berth in the Men’s National Collegiate Volleyball Championship tournament.
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No. 5 Penn State (21-10) opens play in that tournament at 8 p.m. Tuesday against No. 4-seed Hawaii (26-5) at Ohio State’s St. John Arena in an opening-round match. It follows No. 3-seed Brigham Young and No. 6-seed Barton in the first contest at 6 p.m.
Albrecht is a major reason the Lions are there.
“Without him making the progress he made this year,” coach Mark Pavlik said, “I don’t know that we’re where we are now.”
Albrecht certainly ignited the team in that match against St. Francis on April 22 with his solo block, the first of four he made in the match.
“Volleyball’s a sport of momentum, and that was the first big momentum push,” senior Chris Nugent said. ‘We just kind of rode it out the rest of the set.”
By the time the match ended, Albrecht was a member of the All-Tournament team to go along with All-EIVA regular-season honors picked up earlier in the week.
That’s not bad, considering he wasn’t even guaranteed a starting spot when the season opened in January, and he still wasn’t a regular starter in late February.
He didn’t even have a position.
The 6-foot-7 product of Old Bridge, N.J., played as a right-side hitter last season and also was in the pool as a middle blocker. He started 20 matches last year and had a 20-kill night against Lewis among his season highlights. He worked really hard this past offseason on his passing — not a major requirement for those two positions but a big part of the job as a left-side hitter — and he saw a little more time on the left side this year.
Then in February, injuries to Nugent, and soon after to Lee Smith, pressed Albrecht into a bigger role, and finally it all fell into place.
“I’m sure it wasn’t comfortable for him,” Pavlik said. “I’m sure his idea when he set foot on campus as a freshman for the first time wasn’t, ‘I’m going to play all these positions.’ But Aidan has just very quietly learned how to worry about the process and the things he can control.”
Pavlik called Albrecht the “poster boy” for perseverance.
“My coaches and my teammates just really believed in me,” Albrecht said. “They trust me, and that gives me confidence.”
This season, starting 24 of the team’s 31 matches, he is averaging 2.73 kills per set to go with 52 blocks and 12 aces.
Albrecht appears to be right on schedule for his career. Pavlik figured Albrecht would be a three-year project, and he still has a bit of awkward motion to his swing. But using his long arms and quickness has been a big help to the team.
By the middle of the season, he just needed to have the self-confidence, and the urgent need of the team snapped it all into place.
“Aidan did a great job stepping up, filling in the role we needed him to do, and he’s shining at it,” Braswell said. “When Aidan gets hyped, we all get hyped. The energy he brings on the court is great.”
In the match against St. Francis, Albrecht got so pumped up he started delivering some trash talk through the net — drawing a warning from the officials. The admonishment was a collegiate first for him, but he also felt it had an effect on Hogan and setter Daniel Ford.
“I think that might have worked,” Albrecht said. “Their right side, he slowed down a little bit.”
Meanwhile, Albrecht has been on fire.
“I definitely feel pretty comfortable now, pretty confident,” he said. “I’ve been playing pretty well the last couple games.”
Facing the Rainbow Warriors
Penn State faces a tall order in facing Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors have both one of the nation’s top offenses and top defenses. Hawaii leads the nation with 2.76 blocks per set, and is fifth averaging 9.12 digs per set. Offensively it leads with 13.56 kills per set and the team’s .322 hitting percentage ranks fifth.
“It’s going to be a very formidable challenge for us,” Pavlik said. “It’s going to be a fun match. If we do what we’re capable of doing, and they do what they’re capable of doing, it’s going to be a match worthy of an NCAA first round.”
The Warriors area led by first-team All-Americans in opposite Stijn van Tilburg, who is averaging 4.26 kills per set, and setter Jennings Franciskovic.
The teams used to meet annually in January at Hawaii’s season-opening tournament, but the Lions have not made the trip to Honolulu since 2014. They will meet again next season with a spring break trip to Honolulu in March for the Outrigger Invitational.
What: National Collegiate Championships
Where: St. John Arena, Columbus, Ohio
Tuesday’s matches: No. 6 Barton vs. No. 3 BYU, 6 p.m.; No. 5 Penn State vs. No. 4 Hawaii, 8 p.m.