Friday, April 30, 2010

Check Out Who Crashed The Party

Relegation. It just sounds bad.

It’s there in European soccer, where a team can drop from Level A to Level B after a particularly unsuccessful season. It might make certain American professional sports more exciting as well; just think how tough the Pittsburgh Pirates would be this year in the Mexican winter leagues.

But TigerBlog is only aware of relegation in one American sport: EIVA volleyball.

Since there is no Ivy League in men’s volleyball, Princeton competes with the likes of Penn State, George Mason, Saint Francis and other programs in an all-Eastern conference of a mostly Western dominated sport. It has maintained a position in the top division (the Tait) for the last decade, though it hasn’t ended a season as the champion during that time frame.

The last 12 months have seen as much change as any for the program, which lost the only coach it ever had last spring when Glenn Nelson retired. Four starters graduated, and hopes for a successful 2010 season were, at best, flickering.

A young, enthusiastic head coach named Sam Shweisky was brought into the mix. A heralded freshman class joined the program, and the youngest of three Liljestrom brothers, all of whom played volleyball under Nelson, was about to begin his first year as the starting setter.

To make matters even trickier, the Tait Division lost one team in East Stroudsburg; that squad would have been the clear frontrunner for relegation had it competed this spring.

Shweisky, ever the optimist, showed a very realistic side to TB days before his first season began. Sure, he liked the work ethic in his guys, but with several established programs in the league and no real idea of just how his team would react in tight match situations, he feared the worst possible scenario.

“I just don’t want my first year to be the one we get relegated.”

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to relegation.

Tomorrow night in Rec Hall on the campus of Penn State, this mixture of preseason inexperience and unanswered questions will compete in Princeton’s first EIVA final since 1998. The Tigers will be a significant underdog to Penn State, which has won 11 straight league titles and hasn’t lost to Princeton since the Clinton adminstration.

It’s been the wildest journey of any of the 20 different volleyball seasons — men and women — that TB has witnessed. Princeton won four Tait home matches, and each went five sets. More than once, Princeton found itself trailing in the fifth game, which is all sprint, no marathon. At the 50-meter mark, the Tigers were done. At the 75-meter mark, they were resilient. Somehow, at the finish line, they were ahead.

There is plenty of credit to go around. Shweisky earned the EIVA Bob Sweeney Coach of the Year award as much for his preparation off the court as his management on it. His scouting of opponents has been incredibly detailed… his match binder with color-coated zones in different rotations makes no sense to TB, but it seems to work. It could be worth 5-6 points per match.

This season, that is worth two, maybe three, wins.

This season, that is the difference between second place and the Hay Division.

He has also done a good job finding volunteer assistants to work specifically with different players. This isn’t a high-budget program like the best volleyball schools in the country, but Shweisky found a way to get his players individual attention when they needed it most. From Ryan Hennesy to Pawel Kadlubowski to Princeton’s former All-East middle, Mike Vincent, this team has gotten comprehensive leadership throughout the season.

And those players have responded. This team is a little like the 2004 Detroit Pistons squad that won an NBA title. There isn’t the one or two superstars leading the way; instead, it’s been seven players who excel at their own role.

The two roles most critical in this late-season surge belong to the seniors. Jeff McCown developed from a serviceable second middle to a first-team All-EIVA standout by being Princeton’s most consistent hitter and blocker at the position. Classmate Carl Hamming overcame a couple weeks of struggle to play his best volleyball since mid-April, and his two matches against George Mason are major reasons Princeton will play tomorrow night.

So what are the expectations for tomorrow night? This will be a different Princeton squad than any Penn State has seen in recent years. TB didn’t always think Princeton believed it could beat Penn State in recent seasons, and maybe that was even true two months ago.

But tomorrow night, rest assured of one thing. This team will take the court with the absolute belief it can win.

It’s possible that Penn State, with scholarship talent, championship experience and an always-enthusiastic home crowd on its side, will prove too much for Princeton. That won’t do a thing to mar this 2010 season, which already owns a spot among the best, the most memorable, in program history.

But should this team, which has made its season out of handling adversity, find a way to get one of those first two sets… well, nobody had Detroit over L.A. in 2004, either.

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