BOSTON, Mass. - The air in Harvard's Malkin Athletic Center, known as the MAC, hummed with electricity as the Harvard men's volleyball team took on powerhouse Penn State. The bleachers and balconies were packed with rowdy students, the future inventors and leaders of our world and economy, yelling down on the Penn State servers as they tried in vain to best the Harvard serve receive led by libero Chris Gibbons.
"I wasn't surprised," said Harvard Head Coach Brian Baise, of the eventual three-game victory. He may be the only person who wasn't, however, considering Harvard has never, in the history of their men's volleyball team, beaten Penn State. Not only that, but Penn State hadn't lost a conference match in almost five years, not since March 2008 when they fell to George Mason 3-1.
"We had a good night serving," Baise explained. "They've got two real good middle blockers and because we were serving well, they couldn't set those guys as quite as much. We thought if we could get them setting to their outside hitters from off the net, we could play defense around that."
In fact, Penn State's outside hitters Nick Goodell and Peter Russell got 20 and 23 sets respectively, with middle Aaron Russell receiving 20 as well. All of Penn State's other hitters were set less than five times each—Harvard had essentially reduced the Nittany Lions to a three-man offense. Which is not to say those three men were not totally ferocious: Aaron Russell ended the night with 11 kills hitting .400, while Peter Russell and Goodell collected 10 and eight kills, respectively.
Harvard's offense, although fairly balanced between their five attackers, was led by sophomore outside hitter DJ White. The Hermosa Beach native had 13 kills on the night, with only 2 errors, hitting .500.
"[DJ] is a player that has tremendous skill at all parts of the game, and those players are so valuable," said Baise. "Defense, serving, receiving serve, he makes very few errors on offense and hits for a high percentage, so we look to him in a lot of ways."
White sustained a back injury a few weeks ago, just before Harvard played Penn State in University Park on Jan. 26. In that match, the Crimson lost 3-2, with both teams hitting below .065 and missing a combined 37 serves.
"Backs are tricky," said Baise. "You really never know how long it will take, so it was touch and go."
But Baise and the Harvard team sure are glad White was back for this rematch with the Nittany Lions. "He's very even-keel," said Baise. "No ups and downs, and in a match like that, it can make a difference."
White's stellar performance on Friday earned him the AVCA National Player of the Week honor, the first Harvard player to ever receive this particular recognition. He and Eric Fitterer from Lewis are the only players not from the West Coast to be named AVCA National Player of the Week so far this season.
"I'm just glad my dad was here to watch and everyone was healthy to play," said White. "It was an awesome night."
White's grandfather and one of his uncles also attended Harvard, both earning MBAs. White, perhaps planning to follow in their footsteps, is an economics major. When making the decision of where to attend college, the 2011 VBM Boys' Fab 50 honoree chose Harvard with the possibility that he wouldn't be able to play volleyball in mind.
"At the time I was struggling with a back injury and I thought about where I would want to be if I wasn't playing volleyball. . . Harvard was definitely a good fit for me. I love it here."
Baise admits that recruiting for his Harvard squad can be a double-edged sword. He has to work with the tough admissions standards at the school and try to lure players to Boston away from the hotbed of men's volleyball on the West Coast.
"On the other hand," he said, "I think Harvard is a very appealing place to go to school for a lot of kids. And to come here and play on a competitive volleyball team and have a good experience as part of a Division I team that is going to compete for the EIVA title, I think we can make a pretty case for it."
Student-athletes at Harvard obviously have a lot going on, not to mention tough course loads and very high expectations. But the men's volleyball team seems to have it under control.
"The student-athletes are extraordinary," said Baise. "They're highly intelligent and ambitious with a great work ethic on and off the court, and they're guys who have been successful in the things they have done in their life and like to achieve in everything they do. That makes coaching a lot easier—motivation is not something we have to worry too much about.
"You just have to stay on top of things, but they're pretty good at that, that's part of the reason they're here."
The upward trajectory for this gifted bunch of athletes really began last year when the team finished the regular season second in their conference and made it to the semifinal round of the EIVA tournament. They also ranked in the AVCA poll for the first time in program history.
Baise sees this year as an opportunity to do even better.
"I think we're pretty balanced," said Baise. "Probably more so than in years past. We play all parts of the game, not trying to cover up for any glaring weak spots."
Looking forward, it's all about the Princeton/George Mason weekend for White, although Coach Baise warns not to overlook this weekend's matches versus NJIT and Rutgers-Newark, both EIVA competitions.
"I think we're all hoping that the Penn State win is not the highlight of our season, as great as that night was," said Baise. "Our goal is to win our league and represent the EIVA in the final four. . . I expect we'll have to go through Penn State again [to do that]."
White is optimistic as well. "Last year we were kind of down on injuries, but some guys really stepped up. This year guys don't really have to step up, we just have to play really solid and we'll be really good, and that's what we're doing right now."
Who knows what will happen as the season progresses. We've already seen how volatile this men's volleyball field has been so far, but there certainly are a lot of people who would love to see Harvard knock Penn State off their throne and fly out to UCLA in May for the men's finals.