The Big West begins 2021 men’s volleyball play Sunday, and that’s no small thing in the sport.
Since the Big West became the first Division I conference to sponsor men’s volleyball in 2018, it has been home to the most competitive play, top to bottom, in the nation.
They haven’t even played yet, but in the most recent AVCA national top-15 poll, Hawai’i is No. 2, UC Santa Barbara is No. 3, Long Beach State is No. 5, UC Irvine is No. 8, and UC San Diego is No. 9. Only CSUN is not in the poll.
“This year, it will probably be that we will only play teams from our conference,” Long Beach’s Alan Knipe said, “which will mean that every night, we’ll play a top 10 team.”
Inside the Big West, the preseason coaches poll has Hawai’i at the top with all six first-place votes, followed by UCSB, UCI, and San Diego. Defending 2019 champion Long Beach State is ranked fifth, with CSUN sixth.
“Considering the AVCA preseason poll and knowing that many of the teams within the Big West have a number of returners, including returning seniors from last year’s squads, I expect everyone in the conference to be very good,” UCSD coach Kevin Ring said. “Any team stepping on the court will have to play a great match to be victorious.”
With five of the six schools located in COVID-limited California, teams are still struggling to schedule matches. The Big West hopes to give its athletes a semblance of a normal season, playing each team three times, twice in succession with a third match if COVID restrictions permit.
Hawai’i is at UC Irvine on Sunday, kicking off a schedule that is still a work in progress.
Hawai’i’s schedule shows 14 matches. The others include two for UCSB, UCI has 12, UCSD six, while Long Beach State and CSUN lack official schedules. What’s more, the Big West will have one of the shortest seasons on record, kicking off Sunday when Hawai’i goes to UC Irvine. The Big West finale is April 22-24 in Honolulu.
UCI’s David Kniffin believes that the senior-led teams have a huge advantage with the short pre-season and season.
“These experienced, senior-laden teams that were at the top last year don’t need much ramp-up or run way to get to their potential,” UCI coach David Knifin said. “What you won’t see this year is the teams that get better over time, the teams that struggle early and then close hard, because we have a three-month abbreviated season with somewhere between 10 and 20 matches in a month or month and a half instead of that three months.”
In alphabetical order, 2020 records in parentheses:
Hawai’i (15-1, 0-0) — The Rainbow Warriors are missing only senior James Anastassiades, who will change roles from outside hitter to team manager as he focuses on his grad studies in 2021. But those other three seniors? Some of the best in the college game in middle Patrick Gasman, outside Colton Cowell, and right side Rado Parapunov.
“It’s a veteran group for the most part,” coach Charlie Wade said. “The returning guys, we have a whole group that are third-year freshmen, then there are second-year freshmen, and fourth-year sophomores, so they hit the ground running.
“We have a pretty solid of guys that have been around. Colton and Rado, Pat, Gage, those guys have all been leaders on and off the court.”
Gasman, a 6-foot-10 product of Clovis, California, led with 54 blocks, seven solo, and had 83 kills (1.84/set).
Wade said that the 6-1 Cowell, who is from Makawao, Maui, is more fit than ever.
“He just continued to work, and by the end of last year, he realized he probably spent too much time in the weight room. He got a little too heavy,” Wade said. “It’s not that he stopped working out, but he’s in the best shape of his life, and he’s a guy that’s touching around 11-7, 11-8, and he’s 6-1.”
Cowell last season had 132 kills (3.77/set), hit .362, and had 53 digs, 132 kills, 16 assists, 14 aces, and 18 blocks, one solo.
“His overall game is at the highest level that we’ve ever seen,” Wade said. “He’s consistently hitting serves mid-to-high 60s (mph), can touch 70, and his efficiency has gotten a lot better. His hand-on-ball contact is really efficient.
“His passing has always been elite, and I think that’s even gotten better. He’s more terminal. He’s always been a thinker, and he’s just elevating and swinging with the intent to score virtually every time now, and it’s fun to watch.”
Parapunov, the 6-9 left-hander from Bulgaria, led Hawai’i with 201 kills (4.47/set) as he hit .377. He had five assists, 16 aces, and 38 blocks, three solo.
“He’s such a tremendous guy to have on your side. He’s 6-9, he’s lefty. This year he realizes that he has to step up to the leadership role, we rely on him so much statistically.”
It adds up to a lot of talent and experience.
“They’ve all been recognized for their performance but also in our culture and practice gym, these guys didn’t miss a beat. Pat and Colton have been here for six years, this will be Rado’s fifth year, Gage’s fourth year, so they’ve been around a long time and they know what the lifestyle’s like and what we’ve got to do on a daily basis,” Wade said.
“They just kept going. They kept working, doing the stuff that got them to this level. When we’re given the opportunity, I think we’ll be ready to play.”
UC Irvine (10-7, 0-2) — The Anteaters return two AVCA second-team All-Americans in grad student Scott Stadick (NCAA block leader, 2.03/set) and senior Joel Schneidmiller (the only Big West player ranked in the top 10 in kills, hitting percentage, aces and digs).
Also back is high-flying opposite Alexandre Nsakanda, a 6-4 lefty (170 kills, 3.09/set). Sophomore 6-6 setter Patrick Vorenkamp (510 assists, 8.79/set) will continue to direct the Anteater’s offense.
“It’s an exciting year for us,” Kniffin said. “I feel like we were on a positive trajectory coming into the halfway point of the 2020 season.
“We returned the most dominant middle blocker that I’ve seen in the last decade, Scott Stadick, working on his master’s in his fifth COVID year, and I think we’re a good steady team. We’ll be dangerous for teams at the end of the year, and certainly we match up well physically with just about anyone. The question will really be how well we control the ball.”
Long Beach (10-1, 0-0) — Long Beach won it all in 2019 and ran up a 10-1 record in 2020 before the season was cut short. The program hasn’t lost back-to-back matches since 2015.
The 49ers’ backrow is anchored by sophomore libero Mason Briggs (2.24 digs/set, .970 reception percentage), a second-team AVCA All-American. Long Beach also returns a strong middle-blocker core in AVCA honorable-mention All-Americans Simon Anderson (2.45 kills/set, .307 percentage, 29 blocks, 3 solo) and Shane Holdaway (2.14 kills/set, .496 percentage, 37 blocks, 8 solo).
“We were an incredibly inexperienced team last year, the guys got a lot better as the year went on, we got a little bit of experience but not a ton,” Knipe said.
“We got most of those guys back, we got a couple of really nice pieces, the biggest thing for me is that we haven’t seen these guys since March, so the biggest concern is getting back with them and start training.”
CSUN (4-11, 0-0) — The only unranked team in the Big West, Northridge looks to turns some heads, returning the bulk of the lineup from 2020. Junior middle Daniel Wetter (2.74 kills/set, .530 percentage) was an AVCA honorable-mention All-America. CSUN will also rely on a pair of outsides, 6-7 freshman outside Kyle Hobus (2020 Big West Co-Freshman of the Year, All-Big West freshman team), and 6-6 junior Maciej Ptaszynski (2020 All-Big West honorable mention).
Coach Jeff Campbell looks to 6-6 junior middle Cole Chea and freshman libero Johnny Anselmo to figure prominently into CSUN’s 2021 plans.
The Matadors’ key adds are 6-3 freshman Lance Krenik (Foothills Ranch, Calif.), 6-4 sophomore setter Kyle Merchen (Clovis, Calif.), and 6-5 freshman opposite Nathan Merren (Quartz Hill, Calif.).
“We were the youngest team in the Big West and one of the youngest teams in the country last year and having everyone back will really help us in 2021,” Campbell said. “We started four freshmen for much of the season so the learning curve was steep for us, but I think that experience will only help us moving forward. Being able to sprinkle in veterans like Taylor Ittner, Maciej Ptaszynski and Daniel Wetter is also going to help us a lot, I think we’ll make some big strides in 2021.”
UC San Diego (14-5, 2-1) — San Diego returns five starters and their 14 victories was the program’s best since 2001. 6-4 senior outside Kyle McCauley (4.06 kills/set, .321 percentage) will anchor the team after receiving AVCA first-team All-American honors and was the National Newcomer of the Year, both program firsts.
The Tritons’ other pins are 6-5 senior Wyatt Harrison (3.24 kills/set, .260) on the left and 6-7 senior Collin Shannon (1.33 kills/set, .176 percentage) on the right. In the middle are 6-6 junior Shane Benetz (2.03 kills/set, .370, 82 blocks, 3 solo) and 6-7 junior Logan Clark (1.1 kills/set, .362 percentage, 56 blocks, 4 solo).
UCSD lost seniors Connor Albrecht at setter and Ryan Lew at libero, but adds three freshmen, 6-3 setter Andrew Boyle (La Crescenta, Calif.), 6-5 middle Nick Rigo (Laguna Niguel, Calif.) and 5-10 libero Paya Vatanshenas (Irvine, Calif.).
Ring was named last season’s Big West Coach of the Year.
“The pandemic has certainly changed college athletics and how we would normally conduct our fall training block. But, despite the changes we emphasized making the most of the time we were given to be in the gym,” Ring said. “We are still working on what a Big West competition schedule will entail, but our mindset is to be as prepared physically and mentally as possible to compete at the highest levels and to be flexible to face the obstacles along the way.
“We have a strong cast of returning starters that helped propel the team to our best season ever in 2020 as well as our other returners and newcomers who will look to make an impact. Our goal is to continue right where we left off last year — playing good, confident volleyball.”
UC Santa Barbara (14-2, 1-0) — In a year in which experience is at a premium, UCSB has it in spades, returning six of seven starters, losing only senior libero Grady Yould. What’s more, the Gauchos start four super-seniors.
Casey McGarry (6-0 setter) received AVCA first team All-American honors. Fellow seniors Keenan Sanders (6-6 middle, second team), Randy DeWeese (6-6 opposite, second team) and Roy McFarland (6-4 outside, honorable mention) also were recognized.
The lineup rounds out with 6-2 sophomore outside Ryan Wilcox (2.33 kills/set, .278 percentage) and 6-4 sophomore middle Brandon Hicks (1.57 kills/set, .476 percentage, 54 blocks, 4 solo).
The libero duties will be handled by a freshman, either Ryan Pecsok (Pacific Palisades, Calif.) or Jaden Glenn (Corona del Mar, Calif.).
The Gauchos were able to have their first full team practice last Friday, following small group practices two weeks prior.
“They look better than I thought they would after not playing together for 11 months,” coach Rick McLaughlin said. “That’s a long time, and the little bit of training that we got do in the fall was on a beach court outdoors in small groups.
“It’s really the first time we’ve been together in our gym since calling it quits last March. They’re doing well. A couple guys need to get their breathing down, the legs in shape, I think we’ll be ready by the time we start.”