(Photo: Hempfield graduate Joe Sunder hopes to finish his collegiate volleyball career at Penn State in the NCAA tournament. Penn State photo)
"The NCAA [Division I] title match is the same night," said Sunder, a four-year starter on the Nittany Lions men's volleyball team. "It would be great if I missed the graduation ceremony."
Sunder will make his fourth appearance in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association semifinals tonight at Penn State's Rec Hall with hopes of earning a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Final Four. The Nittany Lions are ranked No. 8 in the country according to the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
"We went to Provo, Utah, my freshman year, Stanford the following year, and last year [Penn State] hosted the Final Four," said Sunder, a 6-foot-7 outside hitter for the Nittany Lions. "This year, the Final Four is at Southern California."
Penn State enters the EIVA Tournament as a prohibitive favorite. The Nittany Lions have won 23 EIVA titles and went unbeaten in 14 conference matches during the regular season. They take a 21-5 overall record into tonight's semifinal match against Princeton at 8 p.m. Harvard and George Mason square off in the other semifinal at 5:30. The winners play Saturday at 7 p.m. with the champion earning an automatic berth in the NCAA Final Four.
"We made two big trips this year and one was to USC, so we are familiar with their arena," Sunder said. "We also went to Provo and played Brigham Young twice. We didn't come away with a win on either trip, but it gave us a taste of what we would face if we advance to the Final Four."
Earlier this week, Sunder was named EIVA Player of the Year for the second consecutive year. He was also voted to the EIVA All-Star Team for the fourth time. He earned second-team honors his first two years, and first-team laurels last year and this year.
"It's hard to imagine that my collegiate career is almost over," Sunder said. "It's been an incredible experience to play at Penn State, but the thought of leaving State College hasn't hit me yet."
Sunder leads the Nittany Lions this season in kills (297) and kills per set (3.49), and is second on the team in aces (27) and digs (153). He ranks fifth in Penn State's career records in both kills with 1,442 and aces with 105. His kill total is down from last year's career high of 454, but it's not due to a drop in his level of play.
"We are a younger team than we were last year, but we're a better team," Sunder said. "We are a stronger hitting team, which has taken some of the load off my shoulders. It's great because it's not as demanding on my body."
Penn State has six players who have recorded 100 or more kills this season, including Ambridge Area graduate Nick Goodell, a 6-4 redshirt freshman who ranks second with 215.
"Nick has done a great job in his first year," Sunder said. "He plays a little like I do."
Although Sunder will graduate soon, but hopes to continue his volleyball career.
"Over the past 21/2 years I've talked with Joe about the possibility of playing pro volleyball overseas after he graduates," Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said. "Almost every country in Europe has pro volleyball. Russia, Italy, and Japan have the best leagues. We have enough Penn State alumni playing overseas who can help us guide Joe to the right place."
Sunder would love to play professionally.
"I can't really look into my options until the season ends, but playing overseas is something I've wanted to do," Sunder said. "It would give me a chance to travel the world a little bit."
Sunder does have a trip to France planned in June.
"My aunt won a trip to France and she doesn't want to travel alone," Sunder said. "So she is taking me and my sister, Leslie, as a graduation present. Leslie is graduating from Clarion University with a master's degree in speech pathology. It will be my first trip overseas, and hopefully the first of many."