The 2016 Lewis University men’s team was relatively young.
But this group of youngsters got its hands on the secret sauce that helps make age much less of a factor on the court — experience.
A year older now, Lewis finds itself 15-3 overall and ranked No. 5 in the country heading into an important West Coast swing this week that features contests against No. 7 UCLA on Wednesday, No. 14 USC on Thursday and No. 15 UC Santa Barbara on Saturday.
The outcomes could be critical in the Flyers’ postseason hopes. Top-ranked Ohio State is 18-0, 8-0 in the MIVA and almost certain to win the regular-season title, while Lewis is second at 9-2. Should Ohio State win the MIVA tournament and the automatic NCAA bid that goes with it, Lewis would certainly be in consideration for an at-large.
“It will be nice to go out and showcase Lewis volleyball, but these all are good teams we’re going to face,” said redshirt-sophomore right-side Mitch Perinar, a product of Channahon, Ill., about 20 miles south of the Romeoville, Ill., school. “We have to keep plugging away and not take anything for granted. If we do that the rest of the season, it’s going to put us in a pretty good spot.”
Perinar says the Flyers are reaping the benefits of extended time together in the gym and on the court.
“It comes from a lot of us being around this program a little bit,” Perinar said. “I’m a redshirt sophomore and like some of these other guys I was there for the national championship match (Lewis lost 3-2 to Loyola Chicago in the 2015 NCAA final at Stanford). “We saw what those guys were going through. We developed a culture and we embody it.”
So just how much can the experience factor be quantified? Last year, the Flyers were 1-8 in five-set matches.
“Last year we started four freshmen and those guys learned a lot,” said Lewis coach Dan Friend, in his 13th year at the helm, where he’s 255-130 at Lewis and 414-217 overall in 20 seasons. “We have two seniors middles (Jacob Schmiegelt and John Hodul) who have been around and the rest of the positions mainly are freshmen and sophomores.”
So far this season, with only four seniors on a roster of 22, Lewis has gone the distance in six matches and has a 5-1 record.
“We’ve played a ton of volleyball,” said Friend, whose squad has lost only to No. 3 BYU, at Grand Canyon in five and in four at No. 1 Ohio State. “These guys have learned how to grind it out. They still are learning as we go along, but they try and get better each time they get on the court. I knew we had the potential to do good things. A key is we’ve stepped up our record in five-set matches. That’s put us in a good spot. We’ve beaten Penn State and Grand Canyon and defeated Loyola in five on the road. When you take care of the road and you find ways to win, it gives you a boost.”
Sophomore setter and Californian Matt Yoshimoto says the Flyers thrive in those pressure situations.
“When our backs are to the wall we tend to perform better,” Yoshimoto said. “We don’t want to be in that situation, but when it occurs we go out full force.”
Perinar added, “We’ve done a real good job this year beating the teams we should beat and then going five and fighting sets out and getting wins.”
Lewis, which brings a seven-match winning streak to the West Coast this week, is getting things done at the net. Yoshimoto is at the helm of a Flyers offense that is hitting .317 and has four players with 100 or more kills. That quartet includes Perinar (225 kills, .307), redshirt-freshman outside Ryan Coenen (183 kills, .281), Schmiegelt (126 kills, .441) and Kyle Bugee, a true freshman and another Californian (108 kills, .267). Lewis ranks seventh in the country in hitting percentage.
“We are a very well-rounded team,” Yoshimoto said. “There never is a bad option on the court.”
Equally impressive is Lewis’ blocking totals. The Flyers, who have won nine of 10, are fourth in the country in blocks per set at 2.53. Schmiegelt ranks 12th at 1.07 blocks per set (79 total), while Hodul is at 0.88 (57 total). Yoshimoto and Perinar both are over 40 total blocks. Lewis is out-blocking opponents 2.53 to 1.67 per set.
“Blocking has been a big thing for us over the years,” Friend said. “We’ve worked pretty hard to get better with our blocking and touches. We’ve been doing some nice things there. Its been a progressive upward climb for us. Another big focus has been getting cleaner with our offensive game up and down.”
Friend also lauded the play of redshirt-sophomore libero and co-captain Jake Walenga and senior outside hitter Trevor Weiskircher (fourth on the team in receptions at 154). Redshirt-sophomore Michael Simmons leads the team in digs (166) and is second in receptions (335) behind Coenen (379). The team also has overcome the injury bug, which includes the loss of 2016 starter Julian Moses for the season with a knee injury.
“We’re seeing different guys step up and that’s a very good sign,” Friend said.
Not to be lost in the Flyers’ sustained success in recent years is strong recruiting. Lewis had the No. 2 recruiting class in the country in 2016 as ranked by VolleyballMag.com. Since 2012, Lewis has finished no lower than second in the MIVA tournament and advanced to the NCAA championship match in 2015.
“Matt McCarthy, our associate head coach (in his eighth season), has worked his butt off finding good guys,” Friend said. “We’re fortunate to find these pieces. Lewis is a good fit for our guys and a good fit for playing high-level volleyball and getting a good education.”
Friend and the Flyers are looking forward to this week’s road trip, which features three games against nationally ranked teams.
“It’s going to be a good test,” the coach said. “Rankings aside, these all are good teams. We’d like to go out and win all three, but if we don’t win all three, it still puts us in a position to get better. This is a great test to see where we are at mid-season. We’re definitely not in a bad spot right now. Our goal is to make a late push and be in good shape toward the conference tournament.”