NCAA men: Ohio State, BYU ready for title-tilt rematch

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Veteran Ohio State coach Pete Hanson is hoping his Buckeyes go back-to-back/Ohio State Athletics photo by Walt Middleton

A year ago, the Ohio State men’s team upset BYU to win the NCAA title.

Now the Cougars are knocking on the Buckeyes’ door once again as the two teams prepare to battle at 7 p.m. Eastern Saturday for the NCAA crown on Ohio State’s home St. John’s Arena court.

The match  in Columbus, Ohio, will be shown live on ESPN2.

Ohio State (31-2) is looking to become the third team in five years to repeat as NCAA champion, joining UC Irvine (2012, 2013) and Loyola-Chicago (2014, 2015). The Buckeyes last won the NCAA title in 2011. BYU’s last title came in 2004 it beat Long Beach State in Hawai’i. The Cougars bring a 26-4 mark into Saturday night.

“The opportunity to play at home and be in the national championship at home. Those two things never come—ever,” said Ohio State 6-7 redshirt sophomore middle blocker Blake Leeson. “That opportunity alone will be surreal. Hopefully we will get it done for the fans and one another.”

Leeson and senior teammate Matt Dorn spoke Friday about the opportunity to battle BYU once again with all the chips on the line. BYU was the top seed in the tournament last year, while Ohio State was ranked third. This time the defending champions are the No. 1 seed with BYU, which downed No. 2 seed Long Beach State in the semifinals, as the No. 3 seed.

“We want to show them there is a reason why we won last year and show them that we still are the team,” said Dorn, a 6-5 middle blocker.

“I was hoping to play them,” said Leeson. “They are a great team. They level they can play at is exponential. You saw it with how they played Long Beach. They took it to them. It’s going to be a good match. They are a different team than they were last year and do some things better.”

Veteran Ohio State coach Pete Hanson predicts a competitive battle.

“It will be a very challenging match just like we expected the one last year to be,” said Hanson, who coached in his 1,000th match earlier in the season. “Last year started out that way 32-30 in the first set. It was a well-played game of volleyball by both teams. We were able to weather that storm and make plays in the second set and then we got going in the third set. We expect a similar type battle. They are playing at a high level and are a very good volleyball team. This is no easy task for our young men.”

But Hanson stressed his group will be ready for that task.

“The really neat things about the guys who put on the scarlet and grey uniforms is they don’t get unnerved,” he said. “They don’t worry about who the opponent is. They work hard and prepare and the coaching staff prepares them well. They know if they execute these things they will have a chance and they buy into that.”

Ohio State, which has lost only to Irvine at home and Penn State on the road in five, is led by first-team All-Americans Miles Johnson (6-6, RS, Sr.) and 2016 AVCA men’s player of the year Nicolas Szerszen (6-4, OH, Jr.), along with second-team selections Christy Blough (6-5, S, Sr.) and honorable-mention All-American picks Gabriel Domecus (6-3, Libero-OH, Sr.) and Driss Guessous (6-8, MB, redshirt Sr.). Szerszen has 424 kills and is hitting .386 this season, while Johnson has the same 424 kills and is hitting .334. Blough averages 10.37 assists per set. Szerszen is tops in aces with 75, while Leeson has 115 total blocks. Domecus leads the Buckeyes with 227 digs.

BYU is paced by first-team All-American senior outside hitter Jake Langlois (6-10, OH, Sr.) and honorable-mention All-American picks Leo Durkin (6-4, S, Jr.), Price Jarman (6-9, MB, Jr.) and Brenden Sander (6-4, OH, Jr.).  Langlois has 343 kills this season and is hitting .349. Sander has 247 kills, while 6-9 junior right side Ben Patch (216 kills) and 6-10 junior right side Tim Dobbert (178 kills) also have been key offensive contributors. Durkin averages 10.45 assists per set. 6-7 senior middle blocker Joseph Grosh and Jarman have combined for 176 total blocks, while 6-2 junior libero Erik Sikes leads the team in digs with 166.

“A year ago at this time we were in a similar spot,” said BYU coach Shawn Olmstead, who played on the BYU 2001 and 2004 national-title teams and was part of the 2003 team that finished second. “I’m beyond ecstatic for our boys. They’ve put in the hard work throughout year and from the end of that match (NCAA final in 2016) to where they are in this position and here competing for a national championship. I’m excited they get to experience all this.”

The Cougars’ only losses this season have come to Loyola-Chicago (away), UC-Irvine (home), Long Beach State (home) and Hawaii (neutral at the MPSF tournament). BYU is 5-2 in its last seven matches. Ohio State has won eight in a row.

Grosh reflected on the team’s journey from the loss at Penn State last year in the final to facing the Buckeyes on their home court in tonight’s rematch.

“It was a shock losing last year,” he said. “We felt like we were expecting to put up a good fight and playing to win, but we came out and things didn’t go our way,” he said. “Over the course of the season we reflected on what we could have done better. We have been preparing for this moment.”

And that moment comes against an Ohio State squad Grosh feels is even stronger than a year ago.

“They are better than last year,” he said. “They have everybody coming back. They have a lot of good servers, their middles look strong, their opposite is strong and the setter is very precise and has such good placement. It’s going to be a good time playing them. We’re all excited.”

Comparing the two teams statistically, Ohio State, which received a pep talk from Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer on Tuesday, ranks second in the country in hitting percentage at .365, while BYU is fourth at .323. The Cougars also rank fourth in kills per set at 13.16 and third in the country in blocks per set at 2.59. Ohio State is tops in the country in aces per set at 1.91, while BYU is fifth at 1.70. Ohio State also ranks fourth in opponents hitting percentage at .194. BYU ranks 15th in that category at .236.

Ohio State hopes it's hopping in St. John's Arena again/Ohio State Athletics photo by Walt Middleton
Ohio State hopes it’s hopping in St. John’s Arena again/Ohio State Athletics photo by Walt Middleton

Hanson is hoping to see a large OSU-fan contingent at St. John’s Arena Saturday. Ohio State is 20-1 in home matches this season.

“If Buckeye Nation shows up that’s going to help the guys in scarlet and grey,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun match. Whoever makes a few plays at the right time will come out on top.”

Olmstead said the expected large and pro-Ohio State crowd is something his players are well aware of.

“The kids understand the setting,” he said. “It’s the national championship on their home court. This will be an away match for us and for the first time we won’t have more BYU fans—I don’t think it will be possible here. We play in this type of setting at home and are comfortable. This is a great atmosphere and a great venue for the sport.”

Grosh added: “They will be bringing a lot of people. We’ve played in front of huge crowds all year. We’re used to this and we are ready. The best we can do is go out and play our game. We can’t be distracted by the crowd.”

Before Saturday’s final, the last time a team played for the national title on its home court happened only four years ago when Loyola won the first of its back-to-back titles at home in Chicago against Stanford. USC lost the 2012 NCAA title match at home.

A home team playing for the NCAA title is not an odd occurrence in the Division I-II men’s game. Since the tournament started in 1970, that scenario has occurred 16 times with the host team sporting a 12-4 mark (UCLA is 9-1 in finals it hosted). USC (2012), Penn State (2006 and 1982) are the other three instances where the home team lost. Stanford (2010) and San Diego State (1973) join UCLA and Loyola-Chicago as the teams to win NCAA crowns on their home court.

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