Preparation paid off for Penn State freshman Nathan Smith.
Thrust into the starting lineup due to a teammate’s injury, the Los Altos High graduate played an integral role in the Nittany Lions’ recent upset of Ohio State – ranked No. 1 nationally in men’s volleyball.
“I was doing all those reps in practice and had to trust that I did enough to be ready to play,” Smith said. “You have to trust what you’ve been practicing.”
He racked up 39 assists, a match-high 10 digs, four blocks and a kill in Penn State’s five-set victory over the Buckeyes.
The March 28 home match was his fourth start of the season. After what he described as “ironing out” some things the week before in a road win over Loyola University Chicago, Smith said he settled in at setter against Ohio State.
The Los Altos native added that he and his teammates entered the match with confidence.
“We had the right mentally going into it,” said Smith, whose team was ranked 13th in the nation. “We realized that with all the work we put in at practice, we’d be OK.”
The Nittany Lions got off to a strong start, taking the first set 25-21 on the way to the program’s first win over a top-ranked team in 11 years.
“We came out with a lot of energy – everything clicked at the beginning,” Smith said. “That energy carried us through the match.”
Penn State dropped the second set decisively, but the squad regained control of the match with a 25-15 victory in the third. That was the set Smith made a play he won’t soon forget.
“I went up and got my first solo block of the match,” he said. “That loosened me up.”
Ohio State, which had lost just once all season, fought back to win a close fourth set. The Nittany Lions jumped to a 6-3 lead in the fifth set and never trailed, fending off a late surge by the Buckeyes to prevail 15-12.
“Our outside hitters really carried us and helped us push through,” Smith said. “They put balls away and got us points.”
The 6-foot-5 Smith gave them a hand, however, dishing out several assists late in the match.
While the Penn State players were elated to knock off Ohio State, Smith said they didn’t go overboard celebrating the win.
“We kept it in perspective; it was a non-conference match and doesn’t have as much bearing on the playoffs,” he said. “But we know the level we can play at now, and we want to keep it up for the rest of the season.”
The Nittany Lions followed this match with conference wins over Princeton and the New Jersey Institute of Technology – both with Smith starting at setter.
“There are still things I need to figure out,” Smith said, “but a win is a win.”
Penn State leads the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association with an 8-2 mark and is 16-9 overall. The team now ranks 12th in the nation – with designs on finishing the season on top.
“Our goal every year is to win the national championship,” Smith said. “We want to aim high.”
The Nittany Lions are two-time national champions (1994 and 2008), and their status as a perennial power led Smith to choose Penn State over colleges in California.
“I was considering some UC schools, but I couldn’t give up this level of volleyball,” said the premed major. “It’s been a really good fit.”
The conference playoffs are slated to start next week and the NCAA playoffs May 4.