There’s plenty of excitement around the Big West as it becomes the first NCAA Division I conference to sponsor men’s volleyball.
“Big West men’s volleyball is the single best thing that has happened to the sport of NCAA men’s volleyball,” Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe said. “It is an honor and a privilege to be part of its inaugural season.”
Unlike the other leagues — the MPSF, MIVA, EIVA and Conference Carolinas — the Big West already exists for other sports and has full-time, year-round members. In this case, CSUN, Long Beach State, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, and Hawai’i — previously in the MPSF — will be joined by associate member UC San Diego, also previously in the MPSF and in other sports a member of the Division II California Collegiate Athletic Association.
Accordingly, the Big West satisfies the NCAA postseason minimum requirement of six teams and gets Big West Tournament winner an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament May 3-5 at UCLA.
With four of the six teams ranked in the AVCA preseason poll (Long Beach at No. 2, Hawai’i at No. 5, UC Irvine at No. 7, CSUN at No. 11), there will be plenty of firepower in the nascent conference.
2017 Record: 12-15, 5-13 MPSF
Key losses: Jakub Ciesla (OH), CJ Suarez (libero)
Who returns: AVCA honorable-mention All-American Arvis Greene picked up valuable time training with the USA men’s team last year. The 6-foot-7 junior opposite led the Matadors in kills last year (359) and kills per set (3.99).
Dimitar Kalchev is a 6-4 sophomore outside. He hit .341 for the season while setting a single-season aces record with 63.
Analysis: Do not sleep on the Matadors, who have the experience and arms to turn heads in the Big West. Greene possesses one of the most potent arms in the country and continues to improve.
Coach Jeff Campbell has an experienced team.
“We are very excited about the 2018 season,” Campbell said. “We have an extremely competitive nationally ranked schedule and look forward to playing these top teams both at home and on the road. The CSUN team has five starters returning and has several juniors and seniors starting with considerable experience that should help us compete with anyone.”
2017 Record: 27-6, 14-4 MPSF
Key losses: Jennings Franciskovic (setter, first team AVCA All-American), Hendrik Mol (middle, honorable mention VolleyballMag.com All-American), Kupono Fey (outside).
Who returns: AVCA and VolleyballMag.com first team All-American Stijn van Tilburg returns at outside/opposite after being third nationally in kills/set with 4.25.
Senior libero Larry Tuileta returns after garnering second-team VolleyballMag.com All-American honors with a .955 reception percentage and 2.36 digs/set.
Bulgarian Rado Parapunov will build on a promising freshman year, averaging 2.07 kills/set. The lefty opposite is a force at 6-9, and will likely receive a great deal more opportunities in 2018.
Analysis: Hawai’i has some restocking to do to return to the national semifinals. The Rainbow Warriors have lost three starters, two All-Americans. Still, coach Charlie Wade has back-row continuity behind Tuileta, Austin Matautia, and Brett Rosenmeier.
“We are cautiously optimistic of the 2018 season,” Wade said. “We know we have good players who have worked hard, but a lot of work remains to be done for this group to realize its full potential. We hope to improve enough to compete for the Big West Championship and get back to the NCAA tournament.”
Long Beach State
2017 Record: 27-4, 16-2
Key losses: VolleyballMag.com first team All-Americans Amir Lugo-Rodriguez (middle), Andrew Sato (libero) and honorable mention All-American Bryce Yould (middle).
Who returns: AVCA Player of the Year TJ Defalco (outside), VolleyballMag.com first All-American Josh Tuaniga (setter), Volleyballmag.com second team All-American Kyle Ensing (opposite)
Analysis: The Beach lost nine seniors from 2017: Eric Ensing, Amir Lugo-Rodriguez, Ryan Manoogian, Andrew Sato, Curtis Stallings, Scott Stephanoff, Jeff Utupo, Andrew Whitt, and Bryce Yould.
Before you feel sorry for the 49ers, remember that they return AVCA POY Defalco, a two-time first team All-American with 3.99 kills/set. Tuaniga garnered first-team All-American honors while leading the NCAA with 11.06 assists/set, and Ensing was second with 3.08 kills/set at opposite.
The coaches’ polls certainly don’t feel sorry for them, picking them second in the preseason AVCA poll, as well as picking them to win the Big West.
“Our expectations are staying true to the core beliefs of the yearly expectations and goals of Long Beach State men’s volleyball and to build on the growth that our program has made over the past few seasons,” Knipe said. “We plan to continue our commitment to daily improvement, and the concept of fully focusing on becoming the best team that we are capable of.”
2017 Record: 20-7, 13-5 MPSF
Key losses: Michael Saeta (setter), Tamir Hershko (opposite), Thomas Hodges (outside), Andrew Benz (middle), Dillon Hoffman (libero).
Who returns: Sophomore middle Scott Stadick is a formidable presence at the net with his 7-0 frame. Stadick was awarded VolleyballMag.com freshman of the year in 2017 with 1.19 blocks/set and was sixth in the nation with a .421 hitting percentage.
Senior outside Aaron Koubi had a much improved 2017, finishing with 3.05 kills/set as well as 1.31 digs. He posted nine matches with double-digit kills as well as three double-doubles.
Analysis: Irvine was ranked seventh in the AVCA poll, and tied for third in the Big West. Last year the Anteaters advanced to the MPSF semifinals before being eliminated by Long Beach 3-0.
UCI coach David Kniffin has a young squad in the gym composed of six freshmen, six redshirt freshmen, three sophomores, four juniors and five seniors. He will need to find the right combinations quickly if the Anteaters are to return to their 2013 NCAA championship form.
UC San Diego
2017 Record: 7-20, 3-15 MPSF
Key losses: Ian Colbert (outside), Shayne Beamer (middle).
Who returns: Senior 6-8 opposite Tanner Syftestad remains the go-to for 2018 after receiving VolleyballMag.com All-American honorable mention. His 4.21 kills/set led the Tritons.
Senior setter Milosh Stojcic will maintain offensive continuity for UCSD after contributing double-figure assists in all 27 matches in 2017.
Analysis: With the loss of Colbert (191 kills) and Beamer (98 kills), the Tritons will need to replace 27% of their kills in 2018.
“We return a number of key players from last year’s squad, so we are looking to build upon our performance from last season,” 13th-year coach Kevin Ring said. “We’ve got a motivated group of student-athletes, with a strong senior class, looking to make this our best season ever. I think we have a chance to do that.”
UC Santa Barbara
2017 Record: 10-16, 5-13 MPSF
Key losses: Parker Boehle (outside), Jacob Delson (outside)
Who returns: 6-4 Junior Corey Chavers (outside), 6-7 sophomore Keenan Sanders (middle), and 6-1 senior Hayden Boehle (outside/libero).
Analysis: The Gauchos will miss Jacob Delson, who led the team with 4.24 kills/set. Santa Barbara lacks in size compared to the top Big West teams and will have to rely on excellent ball control and tough serving.
“The Gauchos look forward to the beginning of the 2018 season,” 10th-year coach Rick McLaughlin said. “The goal is to continue steady improvement throughout January, February, and March, and to be playing our best volleyball in the month of April.”
First conference Champions
I’m sure a lot of Big West are breathing a sigh of relief knowing that UCI doesn’t have Saeta and Hershko anymore!