In a five-game, 2-hour 32-minute nutshell, Cal State Northridge and Penn State captured the essence of both of their roller-coaster men's volleyball seasons.
They were hot, then they were not. And so it went.
The Matadors, whose fortunes seem to fluctuate like a seismograph amid a rip-roaring quake, finally came out on top, 15-11, 17-15, 10-15, 5-15, 16-14, in a nonconference match before 832 at the Northridge gym.
In the end, it was the booming jump serves of Raphael Tulino and some inspired play by a hobbled Coley Kyman that led the third-ranked Matadors back from the brink in the final game, which was played using a point-per-play format.
Playing without top hitter Neil Coffman, who was benched for disciplinary reasons, Northridge (11-4) trailed the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions, 12-6, in the final game before mounting a rally that might have saved its season.
A service error by Penn State's Jim Schall gave Northridge its seventh point and perhaps more importantly put the ball in the hands of Tulino, one of the nation's most powerful and successful servers.
With Tulino blasting sliders from the rear, Northridge put its game in gear with a run of six more consecutive points. The first two came on solo blocks by Kyman, who had a team-high nine blocks and a match-high 26 kills. Not to mention a tremendously sore right foot, which he injured on Friday night in a loss to UC Irvine.
"We knew we had to win it," Kyman said. "We needed this one big time."
Indeed. Under the NCAA's new playoff format, the West only gets one automatic berth to the Final Four rather than the two it historically received. The winners of the Western Intercollegiate Volleyball Assn.'s two divisions will meet in a postseason match to decide which team will join squads from the Midwest and East as automatic qualifiers.
The loser of the WIVA championship match will play in a four-team tournament, the winner of which will be the conference's candidate for the lone at-large Final Four bid available.
Had the Matadors lost to Penn State, even if Northridge were to win that mini tournament, it would not have been a cinch to go to the Final Four if the Nittany Lions were to claim the at-large bid from the East.
All of that seemed of little consequence after Saturday's first two games, both of which Northridge won.
Then the Matador coaster took a downhill run.
"We went flat," Northridge Coach John Price said. "I thought we played well 80% of the time tonight, but in that other 20%, they scored a lot of points."
Penn State (16-4), which got 22 kills from Jorge Perez, turned the tide with a rout in the fourth game.