Eight-Ranked Men’s Volleyball Outlasted By No. 1 Springfield

Fans filled the stands in Rockwell Cage Saturday night as the MIT men’s volleyball team, ranked eighth in the nation, hosted the top-ranked team in the country, Springfield College. In their second match of the season, the Engineers fought hard against the Pride, managing to take a game off them before eventually losing 30-27, 27-30, 30-26, 30-25.

The match remained close throughout the four games, with no team able to build a substantial lead. Nerves from the tough match-up, along with early season rust, contributed to errors on both sides of the net. At one point both teams combined for four straight service errors, a problem that plagued the teams throughout the night.

After being tied 11 different times early in the first game, Springfield pulled away to a 25-19 lead, a deficit too large for MIT to overcome.

The Engineers looked to rebound in the second game, but again fell behind 18-14. A solid block by Malcom K. Bean ’11 and several mishits from Springfield gave MIT some momentum, but serving errors again cost MIT a few critical points. Down 24-22, the Engineers then went on a run, scoring the next five points behind the serving of Praveen Pamidimukkala ’08, last year’s North East Collegiate Volleyball Association’s Player of the Year. A kill from Bean brought the score to 28-25, and then another a few points later closed out the game, 30-27, leveling the match at one game apiece.

The third game started out as close as the first two games, with both teams making spectacular plays. After being tied 18-18, Springfield established a small but consistent lead that they carried to the end, securing the third game 30-26.

Springfield continued their run into the fourth game, building an early lead. MIT countered with an 8-2 run, bringing Kenneth K. Rosche ’08 into the game to give Springfield a different look at its outside hitting.

Despite the Engineers’ efforts, Springfield demonstrated why it is the top-ranked team in the country, controlling the net game with its blocks and building a lead that at one point reached nine points.

Co-captain Ryan G. Dean ’08 led the team with 16 digs. Philip M. Rogoz ’10, a member of last year’s NECVA All-New England Division First Team, continued his strong play at setter to garner 44 assists, although he struggled with his serve at times. T. Scott Pollom ’09 led MIT at net with eight blocks, and Pamidimukkala led the hitters with 20 kills.

While Saturday’s result was not what the team was hoping for, the outlook is still promising for a team that returns all of its players from last season.

Augmenting last year’s squad are three freshmen, all of whom look to adapt quickly to the college game. Timothy R. Lee ’11, who was The Boston Globe’s High School Volleyball Player of the Year, made his collegiate debut last Thursday night against Mount Ida College. He’ll continue to work on his timing as he learns to gel with the Engineers’ potent offense.

Lee enters MIT alongside Garrett L. Winther ’11, who Pamidimukkala calls “one of the most versatile players” on the team. Winther had a huge game against Springfield, executing on kills at key points in the first game. Rounding out the new class is Bean, a natural athlete whose high vertical leap will no doubt help him as an outside hitter.

The strong freshman class is a “huge testament to where this program’s headed,” says Pamidimukkala. Now in his senior year, Pamidiumukkala was a part of Coach Paul Dill’s first recruiting class four years ago.

The team looks to repeat this year as NECVA New England Division champions and improve upon its quarterfinal finish in last year’s NECVA Tournament. A win in that tournament would secure the team a birth in the Molten Division III Men’s Invitational Volleyball Championship, the equivalent of college volleyball’s Final Four. Through Dill’s guiding vision, Pamidimukkala believes that “this is the year that we’re going to make it happen.”

Saturday’s strong performance was also impressive considering the team has only been practicing together for less than two weeks since coming back from winter break.

“The loss helped us figure out what we need to work on in practice,” said Pamidimukkala. He reiterated that playing top-notch teams like Springfield last weekend and Harvard later in the year is important to development as a team.

The Engineers opened their 2008 campaign last Thursday in the exact same fashion as they opened the last two years, with a straight-set win over the Mount Ida Mustangs, their fellow NECVA New England Division team, 30-14, 30-12, 30-19.

MIT continues its season Thursday night at home against conference rival Elms College. The Engineers swept Elms in both of their meetings last year.

Why this was Game of the Week:

In a clash of nationally-ranked men’s volleyball teams, MIT scared top-ranked Springfield College by winning the second game and staying competitive throughout. Despite falling in four games, the team proved capable of competing for the national championship.