MPSF preview: BYU favored, Pepperdine, UCLA, GCU, CUI, Stanford all ranked

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MPSF volleyball preview 1/27/2021Gabi Garcia BYU 3/27/2020-Gabi Garcia Fernandez-BYU mens volleyball
BYU's Gabi Garcia Fernandez attacks against Ohio State in January 2019/Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo

The MPSF is the veritable home of the NCAA men’s volleyball championship, with current Mountain Pacific Sports Federation members owning 33 of the 50 titles played since 1970. Venerable UCLA has 19 titles, Pepperdine five, USC four, BYU three and Stanford two.

Four MPSF teams are ranked in the AVCA preseason top 15, with BYU No. 1, Pepperdine No. 7, UCLA No. 9, Grand Canyon No. 10, Concordia Irvine No. 12 and Stanford No. 15.

BYU topped the MPSF coaches’ preseason poll with five first-place votes. UCLA came in second with two first place votes, followed by Stanford, Pepperdine, USC, Grand Canyon and Concordia.

With five of the MPSF schools located in COVID-stricken California, the MPSF schedule will likely be affected by health and safety restrictions, as the Stanford women have experienced. For that matter, already the USC-at-UCLA opener Saturday has been postponed. But the MPSF got under way Monday when Pepperdine beat Concordia. It continues Wednesday when Pepperdine goes to Concordia, and on Friday, Grand Canyon is at UCLA.

“With all of the uncertainties this year, every team has an opportunity to go deep in the MPSF tournament,” said UCLA coach John Speraw, also the USA men’s Olympic coach. “That being said, BYU has a ton of talent and experience and an incredible home-court advantage, with or without fans.” 

The NCAA Tournament is at Ohio State May 6-8.

“I enjoy competing against each of the teams in our conference and look forward to the season ahead,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “2021 looks to be a competitive season of men’s volleyball nationwide.”

BYU (17-1, 6-0) — BYU finished atop the AVCA national rankings in 2020, its only blemish a split with Hawai’i at Hawai’i. The Cougars appear poised to resume where they left off returning 14 players, including their entire starting lineup. 

Last year’s AVCA player of the year, 6-7 opposite Gabi Garcia Fernandez, led the NCAA in points/set (5.56) and aces/set (.918).

BYU also returns three other AVCA All-Americans, 6-9 outside Davide Gardini (231 kills, 3.61/set), 6-4 setter Wil Stanley (655 assists, 10.74/set) and 6-6 honorable-mention outside Zach Eschenberg (132 kills, 2.40/set).

The lineup also includes middles 6-9 Felipe de Brito Ferreira (62 kills, 50 blocks, one solo) and 6-9 Miki Jauhiainen (61 kills, 72 blocks 5 solo), who both made the all-MPSF team.

Olmstead, the 2020 MPSF coach of the year, welcomes a class of seven newcomers, including Zeo Meyer and Miks Ramanis.  

“Most importantly we are just thrilled to get back to volleyball and competition,” Olmstead said. “We’ve enjoyed the training opportunities we had in the offseason and are excited about what’s ahead for this group.  We have a nice mix of veterans and young guys that have meshed well in the practices we’ve had.”

Concordia (11-10, 3-4) — The Eagles finished 2020 on a roll, winning their last five, upsetting then-No. 7 UC Irvine and No. 8 Grand Canyon. Returning six starters, CUI has the leadership to upset the proverbial MPSF applecart.

Concordia will again be led by 6-6 graduate outside Ray Barsemian, an AVCA All-American honorable-mention (263 kills, 4.05/set).

Jordan Hoppe, a 6-4 graduate outside and MPSF second-teamer (180 kills, 2.77/set) and 5-10 senior libero Addison Enriques, an AVCA All-American second-teamer (184 digs, 2.56/set, .953 reception percentage) also return.

Coach Shawn Patchell will have to integrate nine newcomers, with 6-8 graduate middle/opposite Jesper Shut (Hanze University of Applied Science, the Netherlands) showing versatility.

“We want to start where we left off in March,” Patchell said. “With the same personnel we expect to compete at our top form especially with seasoned leadership.”

Grand Canyon (14-7, 4-2) — The Lopes built a strong resume in 2020, with wins over UC San Diego, Stanford and UCLA. 2021 looks like more good news, returning the entire starting lineup, including four MPSF award-winners.

Camden Gianni was the MPSF freshman of the year (220 kills, 3.49/set). Also back are 6-5 r-sophomore outside Christian Janke (219 kills, 3.22/set), an MPSF second-teamer, 6-7 senior middle Ian McLain (96 kills, 59 blocks, 7 solo) and 6-8 junior opposite Hugo Fischer (142 kills, 2.48/set).

The Lopes pick up a transfer from Lewis, 6-4 freshman outside Jackson Hickman, and five incoming freshmen.

“We are ready to build from what we started last year,” coach Matt Werle said. “All of our starters are returning, heathier and stronger than they were last season.  We want to make sure that winning in our extremely talented conference no longer comes as a surprise to people, but rather an expectation.”

Pepperdine (8-6, 3-2) — The five-time NCAA champions (1978, 1985, 1986, 1992, 2005) are largely intact from 2020, returning six of seven starters (losing only libero Diego Perez). That’s quite a difference for coach David Hunt after the Waves rebuilt in 2020, replacing five of six starters from their NCAA semifinal run in 2019.

Pepperdine returns 99.3% of last year’s kill totals.

AVCA honorable-mention All-Americans 6-5 senior Noah Dyer (145 kills/2.84/set) and 6-10 senior middle Austin Wilmot (97 kills, 57 blocks, 7 solo) will continue to lead the Waves. 

Hunt anticipates that 6-8 sophomore opposite Jacob Steele and 6-4 freshman setter Bryce Dvorak (Newport Beach) will be key to the Waves’ success. East Coast newcomers 6-6 outside Joe Deluzio (Windermere, Florida), 6-9 middle Andersen Fuller (Manlius, N.Y.) and 6-4 libero Trey Cole (Bohemia, N.Y.) figure into Hunt’s plans. 

“We are excited for what this year holds. This group is talented, hard-working and hungry,” Hunt said. “We have a unique blend of youth with high-level experience. The youthful nature of the roster in a year dealing with COVID will be a challenge that this group is ready for. They are hungry to compete against a tough MPSF schedule.”

Stanford (6-11, 2-4) — This is a tough time for Stanford. The program is not only in its last season, It’s dealing with among the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in the nation in Santa Clara County. We wrote about the Cardinal earlier this month, where coach John Kosty talked about the battles the team is facing and about the Stanford personnel.

“We’ve got a great balance of senior leadership and returning freshmen, who are freshmen again, and a group of six newcomers,” Kosty said. “We have a great mix of youthfulness along with experience. We’re excited to get them into the gym whenever that’s going to happen.”

It starts with two seniors in 6-7 opposite Jaylen Jasper and 6-8 middle Kyler Presho. Jasper led the team last spring with 234 kills (4.11/set) and had 33 blocks and 12 aces. Presho had 97 kills, hit .356, and led with 55 blocks (1.02/set), seven solo.

The other two seniors are 6-4 outside JP Reilly and 6-6 Leo Henken. The roster has just one junior in 6-4 opposite/setter Hunter Dickey, who transferred from Orange Coast College. There are seven sophomores, including 5-10 libero Justin Lui, a product of Pickering, Ontario, who trained with the Canadian national team last fall. He led Stanford with 134 digs (2.33/set) last spring, and also had 179 assists.

Stanford has plenty of youth waiting for court time. Other sophomores include Will Rottman, a 6-6 outside from Santa Barbara who was second on the team with 155 kills (2.67/set), and Nathan Lietzke, a 6-6 setter from Austin, Texas, who had 201 assists after starting most of the second half of the shortened season.

Stanford’s recruiting class received honorable mention in the VolleyballMag.com NCAA men’s ranking of incoming classes. That includes Ethan Hill, a 6-7 middle from San Clemente who transferred from UCLA.

“We’ll see how that’s all going to work out,” Kosty said. “We’re excited, and I think all coaches are getting excited about the season, just to get back into the season and start doing what we love to do.”

UCLA (10-9, 2-3) — Speraw, entering his ninth season, will have to a replace a few pieces, including high-flying middle Daenan Gyimah, middle Matthew Younggren and setter Matts Kyed Jensen.

The Bruins will be solid at the pins with returning starters 6-8 opposite Cole Ketrzynski, 6-4 outside Austin Matautia and 6-6 outside Alex Knight.

Redshirt-freshman Ketrzynski earned second-team All-MPSF honors (3.00 kills/set). Senior Matautia was named an honorable mention All-MPSF selection, producing 122 kills, 12 assists, 28 aces, 62 digs and 32 blocks, two solo. Alex Knight, the 2019 VolleyballMag.com national high school player of the year, had 111 kills while hitting .273. The Bruins also return 6-2 libero Cole Pender, who had 28 assists and 55 digs in 2020.

The Bruins have three new faces in 2021 with 6-8 freshman outside Grant Sloane (Irvine), 6-3 freshman opposite Miles Partain (Pacific Palisades) and 6-3 freshman outside Ethan Champlin (Escondido).

“We are really excited about the 2021 team,” Speraw said. “We are a young team with good depth at all positions. For us, it is going to come down to how quickly we can gain experience and adapt to the inevitable challenges ahead of us.” 

USC (5-14, 1-6) — The Trojans are looking to rebound from an uncharacteristic 5-14 season in 2020. Last year the squad featured one senior and 15 underclassmen. This year they return 15 of 20 players that saw action in 2020, with 10 upperclassmen.

6-9 middle Kevin Gear is the biggest piece missing from 2020, but returning are 6-8 junior opposite Billy Fauntleroy (167 kills, 3.15/set), 6-4 junior outside Brandon Browning (149 kills, 2.37/set), 6-3 sophomore outside Adam Flood (106 kills, 1.96/set) and 6-7 senior middle Vecas Lewin (88 kills, 1.8/set).

Their greatest early season challenge might be COVID restrictions. USC got to practice for two weeks in December and only two weeks so far in January.

“Not being able to practice and compete as we normally would prior to starting a season is challenging, so we know it is going to take some time to get into a flow,” said sixth-year coach Jeff Nygaard. “But, through all this, our players have shown an incredible love for the game and desire to play. They are fired up and hungrier than ever. 

“We have most of our key players back from last year and they are more seasoned.  They have bought into our vision and approach. It should be a fun year.”

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