Forgive the NCAA men’s volleyball world for feeling a little shy.
In 2020, the season was cut short and no champion was crowned.
Last spring, Hawai’i won it all in a season still hit by COVID.
And now, as 2022 unfolds, the NCAA men’s schedule is taking a dent.
There have been many cancellations, but Hawai’i still hopes Loyola Chicago will travel to Honolulu on Wednesday so that the Rainbow Warriors can not only play but also unveil their 2021 NCAA championship banner at the Stan Sheriff Center.
Eventually there will be a season, and according to the AVCA top 15 coaches poll, Hawaii is once again the team to beat. The Rainbow Warriors received 12 out of 19 votes for first place and are ranked #1.
UCLA, which got one vote, is No. 2, Pepperdine, which also got a vote, is No. 3, and Long Beach State, the 2018 and 2019 champion who got three votes, is No. 4. Penn State is No. 5, and No. 6 BYU got the other two votes for first place.
There are five conferences that receive automatic NCAA Tournament bids, the Big West, MPSF, EIVA, MIVA, and Conference Carolinas. The NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship is scheduled for May 5-7 at UCLA.
Last spring, the NCAA tournament opened with Penn State, the EIVA representative, ousting Belmont Abbey from Conference Carolinas. Penn State then lost to MIVA winner Lewis, who in turn lost to MPSF winner and runner-up, BYU.
In the top half of the series, Big West tournament winner UC Santa Barbara defeated MPSF overall by Pepperdine before losing to highest-seeded Hawai’i, the Big West’s biggest. Hawai’i then defeated BYU in the final.
GREAT WEST — Hawai’i and Long Beach State finished first in the Big West preseason coaches poll, with three votes each. UC San Diego was third, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara were fourth, and CSUN was sixth.
Hawai’i lost its biggest stars from its title team, including Rado Parapunov, Colton Colwell and Patrick Gasman, but the roster includes Stanford transfer Kyler Presho, a senior middle, and returning players junior setter Jakob Thelle, sophomore outside Chaz Galloway, sophomore middle Guilherme Voss, and a huge freshman class.
Long Beach State has the best recruiting class in the nation, returning sophomore libero Mason Briggs and junior outside of Spencer Olivier. The 49ers were scheduled to play at McMaster in Canada on Thursday and Friday, but that trip fell through.
The season was scheduled to kick off last weekend, but UC Irvine’s trip to Chicago to play Loyola on Saturday and Lewis on Sunday was canceled.
“If there’s one thing that defines the Great West, it’s that matches are always exhausting, dragging battles from night to night,” said VolleyballMag.com’s Rob Espero. “And we’ll see teams like UCSD, UCSB and UCI, and CSUN uphold that reputation.”
As the Great West noted in a press release, A member institution of the Big West has won every men’s national volleyball championship since the sport was sponsored by the league in 2018 (Long Beach State – ’18, ’19; Hawai’i – ’21). The first service of the 2022 season is scheduled for January 5, with Big West play starting February 25.
MPSF — Pepperdine coach David Hunt had a good second half of 2021. He married Jordan Larson, the star of the US women’s team that won Olympic volleyball gold in Tokyo, and then his Wave were picked to win the competition.
Pepperdine received five of the seven votes for first place, the other two going to No. 2 UCLA. BYU was selected third, Grand Canyon fourth, USC number 5, Stanford number 6 and Concordia seventh.
“Pepperdine and UCLA are legitimate candidates for conference champions and both teams are excited to talk about the development of their athletes since last season, but as everyone in men’s volleyball knows, you should always look to BYU and the talent that Shawn (Olmstead) brings in. Espero said. “Then there’s Grand Canyon, which arguably has one of the best trio pin hitters in the nation in Camden Gianni, Christian Janke and Hugo Fisher.”
The action kicks off Wednesday when MIVA’s Lindenwood visits Stanford, and BYU heads to Penn State on Thursday. USC was scheduled for UC San Diego at UCSB, but that tournament was canceled. UCLA would be there too.
Pepperdine returns five of the six starters plus his libero and gets a nice pick-up in Stanford transfer Jaylen Jasper. Among the returnees are freshman setter Bryce Dvorak, senior middle Austin Wilmot, and senior outside Spencer Wickens.
UCLA is coached by John Speraw, whom USA Volleyball announced would be back as national team head coach in 2024 and on his way to Paris. His top Bruins include junior wing/right Cole Ketrzynsk and sophomore middle Merrick McHenry.
BYU gets a new look but will rely heavily on senior outside Davide Gardini. The only other starter is senior libero Mitchell Worthington. A major incoming class includes Stanford transfer Kupono Browne and three players back from their mission trips.
EIVA- Penn State was a unanimous choice of the coaches to repeat. The Nittany Lions received all nine votes. NJIT came in second, followed by George Mason, Princeton (who didn’t play last spring), Saint Francis (PA), Harvard (who didn’t play either), Charleston, St. Francis Brooklyn and Sacred Heart.
The core for Penn State and veteran coach Mark Pavlik includes sophomore OUTSIDE Brett Wildman, sophomore OUT/Right Cal Fisher and sophomore setter Cole Bogner.
“With the key pieces still in place, it’s no shock that coach Pav’s Nittany Lions are EIVA’s favorites for the season,” Espero said. But, he noted, “NJIT could challenge.”
NJIT is led by senior outside Alvara Gimeno.
The last time an EIVA team made it to the national semifinals was in 2015 when Penn State lost to Lewis.
MIVA- Loyola is the choice to win the league, but barely. The Ramblers received four out of eight votes for first place. Lewis, chosen to finish second, received two votes, and third-place Ohio State also received two. Ball State was picked fourth, followed by McKendree, Purdue Fort Wayne, Lindenwood and Quincy.
“The talent of MIVA teams seems to get deeper into the conference every year,” Espero said. “In recent years you would only look at Ohio State, Loyola and Lewis as top contenders, but you have to legitimately look at teams like McKendree, Ball State and Purdue Fort Wayne, who have the potential to topple the MIVA apple cart.”
Loyola is led by junior outside Cole Schlothauer and senior setter Garrett Zolg. Lewis has graduate student Tyler Mitchem, the MIVA preseason player of the year, on the center and right sides. Lewis junior setter Kevin Kauling is also back.
As mentioned, Lindenwood will be at Stanford on Wednesday and Thursday and Loyola will be on the program in Hawai’i on Wednesday. A whole series of matches are scheduled for Friday.
The MIVA last had NCAA champions in 2016 and ’17 when Ohio State went back-to-back.
CONFERENCE CAROLINAS — Mount Olive won the regular season in 2021, but Belmont Abbey won the conference tournament and its NCAA bid. Mount Olive is once again the coaches choice to win the competition again, receiving seven out of eight votes for first place. The other went to Belmont Abbey, chosen to finish second. The rest of the poll shows North Greenville and King in fourth place, followed by Barton, Emmanuel, Erskine and Lees-McRae.
Mount Olive is led by Australian Tobi Azeez, a junior outside hitter. Belmont Abbey has on the right Andrew Kohut, a senior from Illinois.
The game was set to start on Wednesday, when Pepperdine was set for consecutive visits to Mount Olive, but those games were canceled.
Is this the year the league wins an NCAA game? Since Conference Carolinas started getting an automatic bid in 2014, it has gone 0-7, with only Barton winning a set from Princeton in 2019. Other than that, all sweeps, but in 2015, Pfeiffer (no longer in the conference) lost to Loyola but took the Ramblers to 33-31 in the second set.