Four months until the start of the upcoming college men’s volleyball season and Penn State coach Mark Pavlik is already getting excited about all the possible line-up combinations he could use in 2015.
With all but one starter returning for the Nittany Lions, Pavlik said in a recent interview with Off the Block that Penn State’s depth could create several intriguing on-court possibilities next season.
Check out Off the Block’s interview with Pavlik as the coach discusses his team’s off-season, the team’s depth and the development of All-American outside attacker Aaron Russell.
Off the Block: We’re at the midway point of the off-season. What has this off-season been like for the Nittany Lions?
Mark Pavlik: Hopefully it’s been one where our guys have been able to recharge and recoup. The stretch run for us, the guys really worked hard and they got better and better. That semifinal match against Loyola will go down in my mind as one of the best matches we’ve played. It certainly was a good match to watch. I think Aaron [Russell] being involved with the national team this summer was pretty good. We had Nick Goodell up here working on an internship that he needed. Everyone else was out-and-about back home and playing. We’ll see what they are like when they get here. Overall a pretty quiet summer in State College.
OTB: Talking about Aaron Russell, he’s getting an opportunity to play with the U.S. Men’s National Team during the USA Volleyball Cup series. What are you hoping he can take away from the experience of training and playing with Team USA?
MP: I think more than anything else it gives him an opportunity to see where he stacks up against the better players in the country. I think for Aaron that is the one thing that has provided motivation for him. I think he wants to be the best. He’s never going to come out and say that’s what he wants to do. He’s just a very humble person. Whatever responsibility he’s given, he’s going to work on it to the best of his ability. I think getting into that gym and getting the opportunity over time to really work with those guys, it’s going to bring him back a little more confident. His senior year could be a special year for him.
OTB: You have a bunch of starters returning this year after reaching the NCAA Tournament semifinals last season. What is going to be the key for your team next season to get over that semifinal hump and bring a national title back to Penn State?
MP: More than anything else it’s going to be the amount of work that this team is willing to do as a team. It’s easy to say, well you only lost Peter [Russell] so nothing changes. Well, in my career I don’t know if that’s ever true. Is the team chemistry going to stay the same? Is the ability to handle accountability something that this team is going to be able to keep building not only through the fall but through the year? Is there something once roles get defined are they going to be accepted? You just never know. It’s something that I thought last year’s team was very, very good at. They were as good of a team as I think we’ve had in a while here from top to bottom. I don’t just mean the guys on the court. All 16 or 17 guys on our roster, I think they bought into their roles that we eventually flushed out for them. I think by the time March rolled around they really started to get a feel for what they can do. So can we build on that through the fall? I think that’s going to be the big question. I’m not overly concerned about the volleyball stuff. We are going to get enough reps in there. We are going to be fine with that. I think more than anything else it’s how can this team hold on being a better team from top to bottom as we had last year.
OTB: I know you’ve had the opportunity in recent weeks to begin to finalize your 2015 schedule. Is there any non-conference matches that you’re looking forward to next season?
MP: We’ll be back out in the Outrigger [Invitational]. We’re at Lewis and Loyola, and then they are here also this year. We’ve got IPFW and Ball State. We’re going to head back down to the Active Ankle this year and take on Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State. While we are out there we are also going to get a chance to take on coach [Bill] Ferguson’s Trojans. I think we are going to have a pretty good non-conference schedule. Obviously, the Ohio State and Penn State rivalry is something that’s constant, so that’s still there. We’ve got a couple teams coming up from the Conference Carolinas. It’s pretty much the typical schedule that we’ve had. We get to play some pretty good teams, and hopefully if we can just worry about being 1-0 after our next match we’ll be in pretty good shape.
OTB: Was there a player coming off the bench last season that you really think has a chance to blossom and have a breakout season in 2015?
MP: I think we’ve got a bunch of them. We’ve got three kids who redshirted in Jalen Penrose Aiden Albrecht and Kevin Gear. We got them in and by the end of the season they were a major reason why our training sessions were so good. They were getting pretty comfortable with that level of physicality that they can bring to the game. And then on top of that you throw in Chris Nugent who didn’t redshirt and had a handful of appearances against some quality teams and only made one hitting here in something like 47 swings. You got those guys. You got Lee Smith coming in as a freshman who’s had time with the Junior National Team and the A2s. He’s a guy who can make a push for getting some playing time. Then you got everyone who’s back. You got Spencer Slaughter who’s had a great summer with his outdoor season that he’s played. Joey Farrell is going to be in there. There are so many different combinations for us as a coaching staff to take a look at. It really is going to be interesting in the fall.
OTB: One random recruiting question for you before we go. The last few summers your assistant coaches Jay Hosack and Colin McMilan have gotten the opportunity to help coach the U.S. Men’s Junior National Team and U.S. Boys Youth National Team. From your standpoint, do you tell your coaches when they are at these international tournaments that if they see a player who would be a good fit at Penn State to take some time and talk to them about Penn State or do you tell your coaches when they are at these events not to worry about Penn State recruiting?
MP: I’m more towards the second end of that. I think that you are there for USA Volleyball. You are there to make sure these guys get your undivided attention. You come in and want to make sure that you are the USA Volleyball staff. The relationships that you make are great. You get back here in August and September and then you can recruit as Penn State. I think you go out there with the idea that you are one main coaches who is helping the national team’s future. You worry about that. I’m not going to be naive enough to believe that you don’t come out and say hey this guy was pretty good in the gym. This kid was great in the gym. This kid we had issues with. We’ll take all that information into account as we mold our recruiting philosophy for that year and really shape our class. You are there to be a USA Volleyball coach with the mind-set of making sure that the young and upcoming talent in our country was coached well and they believed that’s what you were there for. It helps, don’t get me wrong. It enables us to get an idea of who’s out there. But I also know you start looking back at the rosters of the youth and junior national teams over the years and you find guys on those rosters where that was there last big impact. I still go by the recruiting idea that good kids are everywhere. I think we’ve had some success over the years with kids who had never played junior or youth national volleyball. I really expect my guys when they go out there to expect they are USA Volleyball coaches first.