News flash: Repeating as NCAA men’s Division I-II champions is not a walk in the park. Just ask Ohio State junior outside hitter Nicolas Szerszen.
“From the beginning of the preseason the coaches told us it would be really hard because we would have the target on our backs,” said the native of Conflans Ste Hne, France. “Kevin Burch, who also scouts teams — in a really effective way — always told us when we would play a lower-ranked team that it would be their Super Bowl. There was some pressure playing those teams because we were ‘expected to win.’ ”
Szerszen, the 2017 VolleyballMag.com men’s college player of the year, and the rest of his Buckeye teammates handled that pressure with aplomb, putting together a 32-2 season that concluded with a sweep of BYU to win back to back National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship titles.
Szerszen is the recipient of one of three men’s college yearly honors, joining Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe as the VolleyballMag.com coach of the year and UC Irvine 7-foot freshman middle blocker Scott Stadick as the freshman of the year.
“Preparing game after game, correcting small errors we had by watching video and practicing our weaknesses definitely helped us improve toward the end of the season,” Szerszen said. “We definitely worked hard. We watched video a lot and came in early to get extra reps. We did everything possible to be at our best. I thought we always stayed humble by respecting each opponent, which I think is a big virtue.”
Szerszen, who won the AVCA national player of the year honor in 2016, was a leader around the court for Ohio State. He teamed with fellow VBM All-American Miles Johnson to account for more than half of the Buckeyes’ offensive output. Szerszen lead the team in kills (440, 3.73 per set), while hitting .389 on 831 swings.
Ohio State’s Nicolas Szerszen digs against BYU in the NCAA-title match/OSU Athletics photo
Szerszen also was a force on the defensive front, ranking second on the team in receptions (605) and second in digs (195, 1.65 per set). And let’s not forget his team-high 75 service aces that were part of an Ohio State total of 225 aces (1.89 per set) against its opponents’ combined 98. Szerszen led the nation in aces per set at 0.64.
“My serve definitely was my biggest strength,” he said. “I took the season one game at a time and definitely focused on my serve. I think I was more consistent with my serving. I also tried to stay focused throughout the game every time.”
Szerszen, who already has 1,275 career kills, came to Ohio State because of familial recommendation. His sister, Anna, played on the Buckeyes’ women’s team from 2006-2010 and still ranks in the top 20 all-time in career kills and points.
“My sister used to play here and I didn’t even look further,” he said. “It just happened. My experience here is indescribable. It was a culture shock when I got here. Everything is bigger and we have so much help and resources in athletics and academics. Plus, the 8,200 people we had in the (NCAA) final game was the best game I have ever been part of.”
Szerszen, a mechanical engineering student in the College of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said Ohio State clicked on all cylinders at the perfect time.
“We played our best volleyball during the (NCAA finals),” he said. “Seeing all the fans and having so much determination was really when we played at our best.”
Long Beach State’s Alan Knipe top coach: Since returning from his stint as the USA men’s Olympic coach, Knipe had a five-year plan in place for the Long Beach State men’s team.
And that plan, which entered into that fifth year in 2017, keeps on producing results. Knipe, who just concluded his 14th year at the helm of the team he once played for, directed the 49ers to a spot in this year’s national semifinals. They finished 27-4 and won the MPSF regular season and conference tournament.
For his accomplishments this season, Knipe is the 2017 VolleyballMag.com men’s college coach of the year.
“This is my fifth season back and I’m really happy about where we are going,” he said. “It puts things into perspective. I’m happy about a lot of things in the program. The support we receive from alumni is amazing with different events we do. That’s a real good indicator they enjoyed the experience here. I think we’ve recruited real well here and produced a great team culture. In the last five years we’ve had an incredibly high volleyball IQ and some incredibly selfless attitudes.”
But for 2017 in particular, Knipe (278-146 at Long Beach State) said it success arose due to a confluence of several factors.
“It was a process,” he said. “It was a combination of a lot of work put in the last couple years. It‘s team building, it’s building a strategy on both sides of the net and it’s creating a good culture. We’ve also had some very good recruiting classes—including one in particular that features current starters TJ DeFalco (AVCA national player of the year in 2017), Kyle Ensing, and setter Josh Tuaniga. Everything came together.
“Any time you have a chance to do it a second time and have a chance to look at what a college season looks like, you have the chance to put all the pieces together. These guys put in a lot of work and started to see the fruits of their labor.”
Long Beach State, like Ohio State and BYU, made it to the national semifinals a year ago, something that stoked the flames for this year’s returning players.
“We might have got there a little earlier than some people thought,” Knipe said. “The guys left excited. When they came back we set some goals and had a vision and strategy in place. We had high expectations this year individually and as a team. We weren’t asking them to try and get somewhere unrealistic. We said, ‘Let’s put in the work and have a special season.’”
Knipe, who has directed four 49er teams to the NCAA semifinals and two to MPSF conference titles, noted that while players like DeFalco, Tuaniga, Ensing and libero Andrew Sato may be some of the key names on the Pyramid marquee, it took the entire roster to do what the 49ers did this season.
“We brought back guys who played big roles, but we also had other good guys in the gym training at a high level,” he said. “We have to make sure we always have good guys stepping into graduated spots. Those guys that do that at least have been in the gym before, have been in our system and have been in the video room getting better. Last year we put three freshmen on the court who did very well. Long-term, that doesn’t happen that often in men’s volleyball. So we had to fill in the spots of the graduated seniors and then our juniors and sophomores had been in the gym before and understood our system well, had been in the weight room and the video room.
“I feel like where we are now is because we have team guys who were able to step up and they’ll be able to do that next year. These might be names people haven’t heard of since they were in club.”
Knipe downplayed his role in the process.
“I always have said any individual award like this I would be more comfortable having it called ‘staff of the year,’” he said. “We have a great staff here right down to our director of ops, strength and conditioning coach, and our academic advisor. So many things go into having a good college program. We have so many pieces and so many people did a lot of things so well. They tried to do the extra things and thought outside of the box to help us get better. This staff had a really good year. They did a good job of seeing that we could have a fun ride with the guys.”
And Knipe said the horizon remains filled with potential.
“I’m happy but I know there is still room for growth,” he said. “I’m excited about what the next few years could bring for us. We have Big West Conference volleyball next year. We’re hosting the final four in 2019 at the Pyramid and we’ll host the Big West tournament in 2018. It’s a fun time to be a volleyball player at Long Beach State. The program is doing well. I’m fortunate to work with amazing people at Long Beach State and amazing people in the community. This school gives a massive amount of support to volleyball that’s helped take men’s volleyball to another level at Long Beach State. We hosted the MPSF finals this year and had a big crowd at the Pyramid. We’re building nice things here at a time when the president of the university is very supportive of men’s volleyball. We have a new athletic director here. It’s a good time to be at Long Beach State. We look forward to what the next couple years will look like.”
UCI’s Stadick top freshman: Wisconsin native Scott Stadick is adjusting just fine to life in California.
“California is definitely very different,” the lanky 7-footer said. “For one, in wintertime there is no snow. That’s eerie, but it’s nice not to have to shovel. Next year, I get to live on the beach (Newport Beach no less with five teammates). It’s been a unique experience so far.”
What hasn’t been unique or odd is the manner in which Stadick, out of the Milwaukee suburb of Watertown, burst onto the collegiate scene. The freshman helped Irvine go 20-6 this season and reach the semifinals of the MPSF tournament. He averaged 1.89 kills per set, 1.19 blocks per set (fifth in the country) and hit .421 (sixth in the country) in the nation’s toughest men’s volleyball conference. Accordingly, the MPSF’s freshman of the year also is VolleyballMag.com’s 2017 men’s freshman of the year.
“I had a fantastic time this season,” he said. “We had a great season and I enjoyed this team. Coming in as a new freshman, you never know what to expect. This team is great, the staff is great, we made a pretty great run.”
In terms of his individual self-evaluation, Stadick was pleased with the progress he made at the net. “Overall, I had a pretty good blocking year,” he said. “It helps that we have a very good system in place. Statistically I had a pretty good blocking year and our pin hitters continued to improve and play well and that opened up the middle of the court and that helped me put it down semi-effectively.”
Stadick, whose sister Deb is married to his coach, David Kniffin, noted the difference from high school and club volleyball to life in the MPSF on a nightly basis was an extreme eye-opener.
“Everybody always says it’s a transition,” he said. “The game is so much faster. It was a little bit of a reality check and a wakeup call. In high school and club you usually have two guys on a team you have to worry about. Here that number is much higher. You have at least four guys coming at you at all times who are a legitimate threat to put the ball down.”
And being 7-feet tall at the Division I level does come in handy.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Stadick deadpanned. “It’s a big help. You play to your strengths here at Irvine and play to your natural ability. If I can block a ball without jumping, I will definitely use it. It’s helpful and I’m the first one to admit it covers up a lot of sins.”
Stadick also is dabbling in the beach game. Last weekend he competed in USA Volleyball’s Collegiate Beach Championships in Hermosa Beach. Stadick played with fellow Anteater Grant Friedman. Irvine’s Michael Saeta and USC’s Lucas Yoder won the tournament.
“We had an early exit,” said Stadick, who now shifts focus to the USA Volleyball junior national indoor team activities. “My beach game still needs a lot of work. It was a great experience. One of the reasons I came to California was to play beach a lot. It helps your game with defense and serving. Hopefully I can get better with it. Grant is a very smart guy. I know nothing about the beach system and he gave me some great pointers.”
Stadick said Irvine has positioned itself for continued success. “We are losing some good players who were good on and off the court,” he said. “We have some good guys coming in and I really like the talent we have coming back. This is a group that is willing to work hard and that’s half the battle right there.”
2017 VolleyballMag.com Men’s College All-Americans
Player of the Year: Nicolas Szerszen (Ohio State)
Coach of the Year: Alan Knipe (Long Beach State)
Freshman of the Year: Scott Stadick (UC Irvine)
Name Ht. Pos. Year College
Christy Blough 6-5 S Senior Ohio State
TJ DeFalco 6-4 OH Soph. Long Beach State
Jennings Franciskovic 6-5 S Senior Hawaii
Tamir Hershko 6-6 OH Senior UC Irvine
Jake Langlois 6-10 OH Senior BYU
Jeff Jendryk 6-10 MB Junior Loyola-Chicago
Miles Johnson 6-6 RS Senior Ohio State
Brenden Sander 6-4 OH Junior BYU
Andrew Sato 5-10 Libero Senior Long Beach State
Nicolas Szerszen 6-4 OH Junior Ohio State
Josh Tuaniga 6-3 S Soph. Long Beach State
Stijn van Tilburg 6-8 RS Soph. Hawaii
Name Ht. Position Year College
Jake Arnitz 6-7 OH Junior UCLA
Ryan Coenen 6-9 OH RS-Fresh. Lewis
Kyle Ensing 6-7 RS Soph. Long Beach State
Jabarry Goodridge 6-4 OH Senior NJIT
Price Jarman 6-9 MB Junior BYU
Amir Lugo-Rodriguez 6-7 MB Senior Long Beach State
Michael Saeta 6-5 S Senior UC Irvine
Scott Stadick 7-0 MB Fresh. UC Irvine
Mitch Stahl 6-8 MB Senior UCLA
Chris Nugent 6-4 OH Senior Penn State
Larry Tuileta 6-2 Libero Soph. Hawaii
Lucas Yoder 6-5 OH Senior USC
Name Ht. Position Year College
Josh Ayzenberg 5-8 Libero Junior Sacred Heart
Andy Benesh 6-9 MB Senior USC
Christopher DeLucie 6-5 OH Senior Sacred Heart
Gabriel Domecus 6-3 Libero Senior Ohio State
Daniel Ford 6-3 S R-Sr. Saint Francis (Pa.)
Arvis Greene 6-6 RS Junior Northridge
Driss Guessous 6-8 MB R-Sr. Ohio State
Jeff Hogan 6-4 RS Senior Saint Francis (Pa.)
George Huhmann 6-11 MB Fresh. Princeton
Thomas Hodges 6-4 OH Senior UC Irvine
Calvin Mende 6-11 RS R-Fresh. Penn State
Hendrik Mol 6-6 MB Senior Hawaii
Junior Oboh 6-7 MB Junior Princeton
Mitch Perinar 6-5 RS R-Soph. Lewis
Kevin Rakestraw 7-0 MB R-Jr. Stanford
Michael Simmons 6-4 Libero R-Soph. Lewis
Jeff Sprayberry 6-5 OH Soph. King University
Tanner Syftestad 6-8 RS Junior UC San Diego
Matt Szews 6-8 OH Fresh. Ball State
Matt Walsh 6-11 MB Junior Ball State
Jack Wilson 6-7 RS R-Sr. George Mason
David Wieczorek 6-8 OH R-Soph. Pepperdine
Matt Yoshimoto 6-5 S Soph. Lewis
Bryce Yould 6-4 MB Senior Long Beach State