It is said that one never gets a second chance to make a first impression.
But the same cannot be said about correcting an impression that was a misperception.
On Monday, I wrote about why the NCAA bracket is not Disneyland — the Happiest Place On Earth — when stating that Penn State wasn’t happy about its placement in the tournament, the EIVA champion relegated to this Monday’s play-in match as the sixth seed at 21-3 instead of it being Pepperdine, an at-large selection at 13-6.
Several others in the men’s volleyball sphere agreed with the assessment. I even texted Nittany Lions coach Mark Pavlik that I thought he deserved better.
I didn’t hear back from Pavlik until after posting my analysis and before listening to the post-match press conference following Penn State’s victory over George Mason for the EIVA’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
My bad. Seriously.
When Pavlik did get back to me, his response was nothing less than I would expect from one of the nicest guys, not just in volleyball ,but anywhere.
It was gracious.
It was thoughtful.
It was pure “Pav.”
“I don’t really share that view,” he texted. “There was so little crossover play it is near impossible to make comparisons of teams.
“I am so grateful and thankful for the efforts of the respective leagues and the NCAA to ensure we had championship opportunities. We know the heartbreak from last year. Now we get to celebrate our sport and thankfully we are one of the seven celebrating for all of us this year! It’ll be fun!!”
Saturday’s 25-20, 25-20, 30-32, 25-20 win over the Patriots gave the Nittany Lions their 32nd EIVA Tournament Championship. It is the first NCAA appearance for Penn State — and Pavlik who won his 600th match as his alma mater’s coach — since 2017.
That tournament was held at Ohio State, site of this year’s championship, and the Nittany Lions lost a first-round match to Hawai’i in five, 23-25, 27-25, 17-25, 25-14, 15-4. At 7-4 in Set 5, the Warriors used an 8-0 run to eliminate Penn State.
Pavlik’s opening statement after that tough loss?
“First off, I’d like to congratulate Hawai’i,” the former Penn State setter said. “Traveling six time zones and getting ready to play in 48 hours is a tough thing to do,”
It is no surprise, then, that his opening remarks following the win over George Mason were similar. Gracious in victory, gracious in defeat.
“First of all, a big round of applause to Mason,” Pavlik said. “Having ben around four decades of Mason-Penn State volleyball, this is the way it is supposed to be. I can’t believe the effort by both teams.
“Our work’s not over. We’re looking forward to playing a national championship that all men’s volleyball has missed for the last 18 months. We’re all looking forward to getting together celebrating the best of what we’ve done this year.”
Junior hitter Cal Fisher, the EIVA Tournament MVP, summed up the feeling of all athletes who have persevered through the challenging COVID-impacted times.
“The mindset has been that we’re going to do it for the seniors and for the people who didn’t get to finish their season last year.”
Pavlik was asked during the Saturday press conference if he’d consider it a personal insult if his team was in the play-in game.
“Not at all,” he said. “I don’t want that (selection committee) job. They’re going to do the best they can and make this what we need it to be.
“I don’t want to nit-pick, I just want to play ‘cause a year ago, I was sitting there picking nits. If they want to put us ninth, I’m good with it. We’re playing.”
I first met Pavlik in 1995, his first year as head coach for Penn State, a team with one of my favorite players to this day: setter Ed Josefoski. It was at the inaugural Outrigger Invitational, a four-team tournament conceived by then-Hawai’i coach Mike Wilton, a sort of preview of the final four. Three of the four teams (UCLA, Penn State and Hawaii) did make it to Springfield, Mass, the birthplace of volleyball, and the final four was there to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the sport.
The Nittany Lions were the defending national champions, having upset UCLA the previous year in five sets. The most stunning part of that 1994 final may have been Set 4 — and remember this was pre-rally scoring with sets played to 15 — where Penn State overcame, an 11-4 deficit to win 15-12, and the 15-12 in Set 5 to become the first non-California school to win the men’s volleyball title.
It was the first NCAA appearance for Hawai’i, which was led by Yuval Katz and Jason Olive. The Warriors were road weary, having lost at UCLA in the MPSF final, flying back to Hawaii then flying all the way back to Springfield in a span of four days.
That caught up with the Warriors, who lost to the Nittany Lions, 7-15, 15-13, 16-14, 6-15, 15-12. Hawai’i then lost to Ball State in what would be the last third-place match ever played.
Three of those four teams again reached the 1996 final four hosted by UCLA, with Lewis replacing Ball State as the MIVA representative. The Warriors avenged the previous year’s loss to Penn State 3-1 before falling to the Bruins in five.
That is the base upon which my friendship with Pavlik has been built, and I do apologize to him and the Nittany Lions for sharing my feeling that they’d be unhappy about the play-in match.
I should have known better because, under Pavlik, no matter the situation, Happy Valley is always a happy place.
See you in Columbus.