MPSF preview: UCLA, BYU top toughest and ever-changing conference

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The BYU Cougars hope to improve upon their runner-up finish from 2016 (shown here at the MPSF 2015 playoffs)./Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The Mountain Pacific Sports Federation is widely regarded as the toughest men’s volleyball conference from top to bottom and the 2016-17 season will likely be even more competitive.

MPSF teams occupy seven of the top 10 AVCA pre-season poll spots, with UCLA at No. 2, BYU at No. 3, Long Beach State at No. 4, Pepperdine at No. 5, Hawai’i at No.7, UC Irvine at No. 8, and Stanford at No. 9.

UCLA, BYU, and Long Beach State all made it to the NCAA national semifinals, but MIVA upstart Ohio State spoiled the MPSF party and took home the championship hardware.

What’s more, as the MPSF begins its 25th season, the winds of change are coming. This year the MPSF features an unbalanced 18-match schedule. Schools will play seven teams twice, and four others once (two tier-one teams and two tier-two teams, based on the past five year’s results) to total 18 matches.

UCSD coach Kevin Ring likes the move.

“For the first time in many, many years, the MPSF is going with an unbalanced schedule, which provides each team most non-conference opportunities,” Ring said. “We’ve taken an aggressive approach to scheduling, as we will face Ohio State, Ball State, BYU, Princeton and Grand Canyon, as well as a few other teams within our non-conference schedule.”

Those winds of change will pick up for the 2018 season as CSU Northridge, Long Beach State, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, Hawai’i, and UC San Diego move to the newly formed Big West men’s volleyball conference.  That season will also feature the addition of two new programs, Concordia University Irvine from the NAIA, and Grand Canyon University from the MIVA. Thus, the Big West will have six participants, and the MPSF eight, both conferences satisfying the minimum requirement of six teams to earn an automatic championship berth.

Back to the MPSF, which has brought home 16 of 24 championships since its inception in 1992-93.

“(The MPSF) is going to be ultra-competitive,” Cal Baptist coach Derek Schmitt said. ” … there’s no easy night in this conference.”

UCLA coach John Speraw agrees.

“I think the level at the top of the conference will be higher this year,” Speraw said. “Everybody’s going to be a little bit better.”

The MPSF preseason coaches’ poll lists BYU at the top with 119 points, followed by UCLA with 111, Long Beach State at No. 3 with 103, UCI at No. 4 with 79 points, and Pepperdine at No. 5 with 73. Hawai’i, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara, CSU Northridge, USC, Cal Baptist, and UC San Diego round out the conference.

BYU's Ben Patch has been training with team USA./Ed Chan, VBshots.com
BYU’s Ben Patch has been training with Team USA/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

BYU returns five starters plus its libero, losing only middle Michael Hatch. Opposite Ben Patch scored a team-best 4.32 kills per set and has gained valuable experience in training with the national team. Patch and outside hitter Brenden Sander were both AVCA first-team All-Americans, while 6-10 outside Jake Langlois was second team. Leo Durkin will against direct the Cougar’s offense, where he averaged 10.54 assists/set on his way to AVCA honorable mention honors.

“Our team is looking forward to the start of the 2017 volleyball season,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. He was 27-4 in his first season after moving over from coaching the women. “We have a great group of guys who are learning and working hard each day to build on the success of last year.”

Jake Arnitz and the UCLA Bruins are ranked No. 2 in both the AVCA and MPSF preseason polls./Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Jake Arnitz and the UCLA Bruins are ranked No. 2 in both the AVCA and MPSF preseason polls/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

UCLA returns its entire starting squad for 2017 and hopes to better its NCAA semifinal finish after dropping a tough five-set decision to eventual champion Ohio State. Speraw, also the USA men’s coach, is 77-43 in four seasons at UCLA, which tied for second in the MPSF last season.

UCLA is paced by explosive setter/hitter sophomore Micah Ma’a, a 6-foot-3 AVCA first-team All-American who also trained with the Olympic team. Ma’a led the Bruins with .48 aces/set in 2016, and had 2.12 kills/set, hit .310, dug 1.6/set, and blocked for .7/set.  AVCA second-team outside Jake Arnitz led 3.31 kills per set, hitting for .313 for the season.

“We were a bit more beat up in the fall than I would like,” Speraw said, “but I think we’ll be stronger than last year.”

Speraw’s opinion is bolstered by the fact that UCLA brought in the No. 3 VolleyballMag.com recruiting class for 2017. The freshman class includes Daeanan Gyimah, a 6-8 Canadian middle who touches 12 feet, Sam Kobrine, a 6-3 setter/outside from Corona del Mar, and Sam Jones, a 5-9 libero from storied Mira Costa.

Josh Tuaniga received second team All-American honors as a freshman./Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Josh Tuaniga of Long Beach State received second-team All-American honors as a freshman/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Long Beach State returns five starters from 2016, when the 49ers lost in the national semifinals. Coach Alan Knipe is in his 14th season, with a 251-143 record.

USA national-team candidate TJ DeFalco returns, along with sophomore setter Josh Tuaniga (second-team AVCA All-American), and AVCA honorable-mention libero Andrew Sato.

Huntington Beach products DeFalco and Tuaniga have tremendous chemistry together that started in high school. LBSU loses only middle Taylor Gregory.

Long Beach also picks up four junior college transfers, middle Nick Amado, libero Jordan Molina, outside Vincent Pizzuti, and outside Andrew TenBrink.

“As a team, we are getting better in all facets of the game,” Knipe said, “including volleyball skill sets, volleyball IQ and the team’s physical conditioning. We have some maturity from last year’s young freshman group with a lot of good returners coming back from last year. We’re excited to start the season.”

Irvine star Tamir Hershko only played 41 sets last year due to injury./Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Irvine star Tamir Hershko only played 41 sets last year due to injury/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

UCI returns four starters from its injury-plagued 2016 season where the Anteaters tied for eighth in the MPSF with a 10-20 record (7-14 MPSF). Israeli Tamir Hershko led with 3.71 kills per set, despite only playing in 41 sets due to injury. The Anteater’s backcourt is largely intact, as setters Dante Chakavorti (9.58 assists/set) and Michael Saeta (.52 assists/set, 1.97 kills/set) return, along with libero Dillon Hoffman (2.13 digs/set).

UCI coach David Kniffin is in his fourth season, with a 53-38 record. Kniffin has a bit of restocking to do, with the losses of Jason Agopian (2.01 kills/set), Kyle Russell, (2.88 kills/set), and Marty Ross (1.31 kills/set).

Irvine expects some good numbers from the VolleyballMag.com No. 8 recruiting class, with three Fab 50 selections in 6-11 middle Sean Dennis of Bonita, 6-6 right side Patrick Sohacki from Eastlake, and 7-foot middle Scott Stadick of Watertown.

“The human and athletic potential of this recruiting class is special,” Kniffin said.

“We are healthy, which is refreshing. As usual, we don’t match-up guy-for-guy with some of the top teams, but collectively we should be a force. I think that is the foundation that UCI volleyball has been forged on and has been successful with. On any given night, we could have a 5-11 guy lining up to block next to a 7-foot guy.”

Marv Dunphy begins his 34th season at Pepperdine./Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Marv Dunphy begins his 34th season at Pepperdine/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Pepperdine finished 13-11 last year and ranked seventh nationally. Coach Marv Dunphy begins his 34th year, with a 602-265 overall record. The Waves return four starters and a libero, but lost a pair of AVCA second-team All-Americans in Matt Tarantino (3.88 kills/set) and Tommy Carmody (1.58 kills/set, 100 blocks, 9 solo).

Pepperdine’s returning starters are redshirt-sophomore David Wieczorek (2.94 kills/set), Mitchell Penning (1.53 kills/set, .95 blocks/set), Colby Harriman (2.61 kills/set), setter Joshua Stewart (10.12 assists/set), and libero Weston Barnes (2.02 digs/set).

Dunphy will rely upon six newcomers to fill in the blanks. Senior Kyle Suppes rejoins the squad after a one year hiatus. Junior transfers Alex Harthaller of Innsbruck, Austria, and Owen Yoshimoto of Ventura hail from IPFW and Santa Barbara City College, respectively. Noah Dyer of San Clemente, Robert Mullahey of Manhattan Beach, and Sam Bradley of Honolulu are freshmen.

“The first thing I think of when I think of our team is we are not going to be as big as we have been historically,” Dunphy said. “We graduated two guys that are 6-9 and also last year I think we were pretty dependent on Tarantino to get lots of kills, aces, and blocks …we threw him lots of sets. In theory, we are going to have to be more balanced offensively, and I think we have some depth to help with that.”

All-MPSF Honorable Mention opposite Stijn van Tilburg will feature prominently in Hawai'i offense./Hawai'i Athletics
Sophomore opposite Stijn van Tilburg will feature prominently in Hawai’i offense./Hawai’i Athletics

Hawai’i was 16-12 last year after losing in the MPSF quarterfinals. Coach Charlie Wade has compiled a seven-year record of 107-91. The Rainbow Warriors return five starters, losing second-team All-Americans Sinisa Zarkovic, an outside, and libero Kolby Kanetake.

Wade will lean on sophomore opposite Stijn van Tilburg (6-8, All-MPSF Honorable Mention, 3.26 kills/set), senior outside and Honolulu native Kupono Fey (6-5, 2.61 kills/set), and senior middle Hendrik Mol (6-6, .99 blocks/set).

Outside hitter and USC transfer Larry Tuileta figures to be in the mix after earning all-MPSF freshman honors, while freshmen Bulgarian junior national-team member Rado Parapunov and USA junior national-team member Austin Matautia will compete for starting spots.

Stanford outside Gabriel Vega averaged 2.87 kills/set in 2016./Stanford Athletics
Stanford outside Gabriel Vega averaged 2.87 kills/set in 2016/Stanford Athletics

Stanford finished 19-6 overall, and at 17-5 tied for second in the MPSF. Cardinal coach John Kosty is 174-115 as he enters his 11th season.

Stanford returns junior libero Evan Enriques (2.53 digs/set), sophomore outside hitter Jordan Ewert (1.48 kills/set), redshirt junior middle blocker Kevin Rakestraw (1.6 kills/set, 1.00 blocks/set), and redshirt senior outside hitter Gabriel Vega (2.87 kills/set, .273 hitting percentage).

Stanford faces the loss of three critical starters from 2016: setter James Shaw (MPSF player of the year), middle blocker Conrad Kaminski (2.29 kills/set, 1.45 blocks/set), and outside Madison Hayden (3.47 kills/set).

Paul Bischoff is part of the No. 1 ranked VBM recruiting class of 2017.
Paul Bischoff is part of Stanford’s No. 1 ranked VBM recruiting class of 2017/Stanford Athletics

Stanford’s cupboard, however, is well stocked, boasting the VolleyballMag.com top ranked recruiting class that includes 6-7 middle Eric Beatty of Huntington Beach, 6-5 setter Paul Bischoff of Glenbard, 6-9 middle Stephen Moye of El Segundo, 6-6 middle Jacob Thoenen of Christian, 6-5 right side Mason Tufuga of Costa Mesa, and 6-5 side Eli Wopat of Dos Pueblos. Wopat’s twin sisters, Carly and Sam, played at Stanford.

UCSB has three Boehle brothers on its squad: junior Hayden (shown), red-shirt senior Parker, and incoming freshman Davis./UCSB athletics
UCSB has three Boehle brothers on its squad: junior Hayden (shown), redshirt senior Parker, and incoming freshman Davis/UCSB athletics

UCSB came away from 2016 with a 20-10 record (14-8 MPSF) and ranked fifth nationally after a five set loss at BYU in the MPSF semifinals. Coach Rick McLaughlin faces some challenges, losing three-time All-American setter Jonas Seif, All-MPSF middle Ryan Hardy, second-team All-MPSF right side Matt Marsh, and starting outside Austin Kingi.

But don’t feel bad for the Gauchos just yet, as they boast the No. 5 VolleyballMag.com recruiting class.

“We brought in nine guys we like a lot,” McLaughlin said. “Four or five of them already have very high volleyball IQs, sound skills, have won a ton and will really help our training environment immediately. The other four or five have incredible potential and could become very successful players in the MPSF after a few years. We are very excited about all nine and can’t wait to get them in our gym.”

Six of those players were featured on the 2016 VolleyballMag.com Boys’ Fab 50 list: Davis Boehle (6-0, libero-S, Loyola (Los Angeles, Calif.), Randy Deweese (6-6, S, Natomas Prep, Sacramento, Calif.), Roy McFarland (6-3, OH, Mira Costa (Manhattan Beach, Calif.), Casey McGarry (6-0, S, Loyola (Los Angeles, Calif.), Keenan Sanders (6-6, MB-RS, Scripps Ranch (San Diego, Calif.), Jack Truman (6-10, MB, Loyola (Los Angeles, Calif.).

Jeff Campbell's Matadors lose only one starter from 2016./Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Jeff Campbell’s Matadors lose only one starter from 2016/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

CSU Northridge finished 14-15 (7-15 MPSF), tied for the eighth and the final spot in the MPSF tournament but lost the head-to-head tiebreaker with UCI. Jeff Campbell is in his 20th year (277-272), and returns six of seven starters.

The Matadors will hit the ground running, losing only middle blocker Brian O’Gorman (.98 kills/set, 37 blocks), allowing them to keep 83 percent of their offensive output from 2016.

“That’s a big factor and the guys we have are athletic, talented and they all have the right mindset,” Campbell said. “When you have a group that is as committed to being better as our guys are, then you develop a winning culture.”

6-9 senior middle Josiah Byers (All-MPSF Honorable Mention), 6-6 senior outside Jakub Ciesla (3.24 kills/set, 19 aces), and 6-4 sophomore outside Dimitar Kalchev (3.04 kills/set, 101 digs) will figure prominently in the offense, with 6-3 sophomore setter Sam Porter (9.95 assists/set, 101 digs) and 5-10 senior libero CJ Suarez (1.99 digs/set) on the ball control side.

“We’ve got a very talented group of players this year,” Campbell said. “And with that, we have players with experience which is something we’ve been missing the last several years. We have the game time experience at outside hitter, opposite, middle blocker, setter and libero, which is really important when you’re playing really good teams night in and night out.”

USC's opposite Christopher Orenic/USC athletics
USC’s opposite Christopher Orenic/USC athletics

Preseason No. 10 USC struggled to a 7-19 record (5-17 MPSF and finished 11th in the MPSF. Second-year coach Jeff Nygaard returns five starters, 6-9 senior middle Andy Benesh (1.5 kills/set, .72 blocks/set), 6-4 senior outside Lucas Yoder (3.25 kills/set), 6-6 junior right side Jon Rivera (2.58 kills/set), 6-6 junior setter Gert Lisha (8.93 assists/set), and 5-10 sophomore libreo Matt Douglas (.87 digs/set).

The Trojans lose outside hitter Alex Slaught (2.4 kills/set), and libero Brooks Varni (1.79 digs/set), while welcoming 5-8 freshman libero Michael Chang (All-CIF Division I first team), 6-3 setter Matt Faraimo (All-CIF San Diego first team), 6-8 middle blocker Matt Hassel (USA boys youth continental team), 6-7 opposite Lucas Lossone (VolleyballMag.com Fab 50, 2016 AVCA All-American first team), 6-5 outside hitter Sean Morrissey (2016 VolleyballMag.com Fab 50, 2016 AVCA All-American first team), 6-4 outside Aaron Strange, and 6-2 outside hitter Jackson Wedbush (2016 VolleyballMag.com Fab 50, All-CIF Division I first team)

Nygaard likes what he sees so far in his freshman class.

“Michael is a highly-intelligent and hard-working player who is developing his role with our team,” Nygaard said. “He represents the best about USC athletically and academically. Matt (Faraimo) takes a very level-headed approach to the game, is very coachable, works hard and is a good player. He filled in setting for us in fall competition and I couldn’t have been more pleased.

“Matt (Hassel) puts in the work, listens to his coaches and wants to improve in every aspect of the game. He is developing into an MPSF blocker. Sean is a physical, explosive, poised player with a world of potential and a good future. I’m excited to watch him progress. Jackson (Wedbush) is one of our best all-around players and is a great server. He has a team-first mindset. Jackson (Barrett) ran through walls to become part of our team after fall practice, which earned the players’ respect. He continues to develop as he fast tracks his acclimatization to our program.”

Overall, Nygaard expects marked improvement this year.

“We continue to progress toward establishing a culture of being a sustainably great team.  From last year to this year, we have evolved tremendously in learning what it takes to achieve success. We’ll be a much better team than past years and will contend with every team we face. We have strong senior leadership and experience, and I’m also excited about the potential that our young players bring. When we are on our game, we’re a strong side out team that will do a good job defensively.”

Cal Baptist's Enrique de Diego Garcia will play a greater role for the Lancers this year./CBU athletics
Cal Baptist’s Enrique de Diego Garcia will play a greater role for the Lancers this year/CBU athletics

Cal Baptist was 14-16 (6-16 MPSF) and one win and one set away from its first ever MPSF tournament berth. Coach Derek Schmitt begins his second season 45-36 overall.

CBU returns middle blocker Enrique de Diego Garcia (2.07 kills/set, .481 hitting percentage, 105 blocks, 10 aces), libero Emmett Enriques (1.93 digs/set, 46 assists), outside Rohit Paul (1.67 kills/set, .81 digs/set, 31 blocks, 24 aces) and middle Jackson Burge (1.24 kills/set, .382 hitting percentage, 49 blocks, 35 digs, 18 aces).

On the flip side,the Lancers lose outside Rocky DeLyon (2.75 kills/set, .253 percentage), opposite Roy Powell (2.53 kills/set, .274 percentage), and setter Arturo Iglesias, (9.54 assists/set, 103 digs, seven aces).

“Our expectation is to be better than we were last year,” Schmitt said, “and if we can do that, we have a shot to get into the postseason. It’s not going to be an easy road, but this is what we have worked so hard for.

“We are going to be bigger than we’ve been in my couple years here. We will have a little more physicality out there, so I think that’s going to be good for us.”

Schmitt recognized the MPSF changes ahead.

“The landscape changes and starting next year everyone is going to make the tournament, so this is our last chance to earn it and I want to earn it. I don’t want to get in just because we are in the conference, I want to earn it – that’s a major goal.”

Senior outside Ian Colbert led UCSD last year with 233 kills./UCSD athletics
Senior outside Ian Colbert led UCSD last year with 233 kills/UCSD athletics

UCSD went winless, 0-22, in the MPSF and 5-23 overall. But Ring, entering his 12th year  (77-236, 40-206 MPSF) has plenty to be pleased about, returning five starters and 13 letter winners.

“We are excited about our future move to the Big West Conference for the 2018 season,” Ring said, “but we are equally as excited and determined for our final run in the MPSF. It is going to be another highly competitive year in the conference.”

6-1 senior outside Ian Colbert led the team with 233 kills, 154 digs, and 13 service aces, while 6-8 junior opposite Tanner Syftestad finished second with 216 kills, and chipped in 81 digs and 15 service aces. Senior middle blocker Shayne Beamer will make major contributions this year, with 117 kills and 56 total blocks in 2016.

The Tritons will need to replace libero Tanner Howard (174 digs) and outside hitter Kirill Rudenko (139 kills, 16 service aces). Key freshmen include 6-2 outside Devin Pontigon of Oceanside and 5-11 libero Ryan Lew of San Marino.

“The 2017 UC San Diego men’s volleyball squad is the most experienced team we’ve had over the past few seasons,” Ring said, “with a number of players returning this year who have previously been starters for one or two seasons. Experience goes a long way in the very competitive MPSF, and we look for our three most experienced players, Ian Colbert, Shayne Beamer and Tanner Syftestad, to lead the team offensively this season.”

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