Forgive the NCAA men’s volleyball world for feeling a little gun shy.
In 2020, the season was cut short and no champion was crowned.
Last spring, Hawai’i won it all in a season that was still affected by COVID.
And now, as 2022 unfolds, the NCAA men’s schedule is taking a beating.
There have been cancelations galore, but Hawai’i is still hoping that Loyola Chicago will make its trip to Honolulu on Wednesday so the Rainbow Warriors can not only play, but unveil their 2021 NCAA championship banner in the Stan Sheriff Center.
Eventually there will be a season, and, according to the AVCA preseason top 15 coaches poll, Hawai’i is again the team to beat. The Rainbow Warriors got 12 of the 19 first-place votes and are ranked No. 1.
UCLA, which got one vote, is No. 2, Pepperdine, which also got a vote, is No. 3, and Long Beach State, the 2018 and 2019 champion that got three votes, is No. 4. Penn State is No. 5, and No. 6 BYU got the other two first-place votes.
There are five conferences that get automatic NCAA Tournament bids, the Big West, MPSF, EIVA, MIVA, and Conference Carolinas. The NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship is scheduled for May 5-7 at UCLA.
Last spring, the NCAA Tournament opened with Penn State, the EIVA representative, ousting Belmont Abbey of Conference Carolinas. Penn State then lost to MIVA winner Lewis, which in turn lost to the MPSF winner and second-seeded, BYU.
On the top half of the bracket, Big West tournament winner UC Santa Barbara beat MPSF at-large Pepperdine before losing to top-seeded Hawai’i, the at-large from the Big West. Hawai’i then swept BYU in the final.
BIG WEST — Hawai’i and Long Beach State tied for first in the Big West preseason coaches poll with each getting three first-place votes. UC San Diego was third, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara tied for fourth, and CSUN was sixth.
Hawai’i lost its biggest stars from its title team, including Rado Parapunov, Colton Colwell, and Patrick Gasman, but the roster includes Stanford transfer Kyler Presho, a senior middle, and returning players junior setter Jakob Thelle, sophomore outside Chaz Galloway, sophomore middle Guilherme Voss, and a huge freshman class.
Long Beach State boasts the top recruiting class in the nation and returns sophomore libero Mason Briggs and junior outside Spencer Olivier. The 49ers were scheduled to play at McMaster in Canada on Thursday and Friday but that trip was canceled.
The season was scheduled to open this past weekend, but UC Irvine’s trip to Chicago to play Loyola on Saturday and Lewis on Sunday was canceled.
“If there is one thing that is characteristic of the Big West, it is matches are always knock-down, drag-out battles from night to night,” said VolleyballMag.com’s Rob Espero. “And we will see that teams like UCSD, UCSB and UCI, and CSUN will ensure that reputation.”
As the Big West pointed out in a news release, A Big West member institution has won every men’s volleyball national championship since the sport became sponsored by the league in 2018 (Long Beach State – ’18,’19; Hawai’i – ’21). First serve of the 2022 season is slated for Jan. 5, with Big West play set to open on Feb. 25.
MPSF — Pepperdine coach David Hunt had a good second half of 2021. He married Jordan Larson, the star of the USA women’s team that won Olympics volleyball gold in Tokyo, and then his Wave were picked to win the league.
Pepperdine got five of the seven first-place votes, with the other two going to No. 2 UCLA. BYU was picked third, Grand Canyon fourth, USC is No. 5, Stanford is No. 6, and Concordia seventh.
“Pepperdine and UCLA are legitimate conference champion candidates and both teams are excited to talk about the development of their athletes since last season, but as anyone knows in men’s volleyball one has to always watch BYU and the talent that Shawn (Olmstead) brings in,” Espero said. “Then there is Grand Canyon, which has arguably one of the best trio of pin-hitters in the nation in Camden Gianni, Christian Janke and Hugo Fisher.”
Action is set to begin Wednesday when the MIVA’s Lindenwood visits Stanford, and then Thursday BYU goes to Penn State. USC was scheduled to be at UC San Diego at UCSB, but that tournament was canceled. UCLA was also set to be there.
Pepperdine returns five of six starters plus its libero and gets a nice pickup in Stanford transfer Jaylen Jasper. Among the returners are freshman setter Bryce Dvorak, senior middle Austin Wilmot, and senior outside Spencer Wickens.
UCLA is coached by John Speraw, whom USA Volleyball announced that he would be back as the national-team men’s coach heading into Paris in 2024. His top Bruins include junior outside/right side Cole Ketrzynsk and sophomore middle Merrick McHenry.
BYU will have a new look, but will rely heavily on senior outside Davide Gardini. The only other starter back is senior libero Mitchel Worthington. A large incoming class includes Stanford transfer Kupono Browne and three players back from their mission trips.
EIVA — Penn State was a unanimous choice by the coaches to repeat. The Nittany Lions got all nine votes. NJIT was second, followed by George Mason, Princeton (which did not play last spring), Saint Francis (PA), Harvard (which also did not play), Charleston, St. Francis Brooklyn, and Sacred Heart.
The core for Penn State and veteran coach Mark Pavlik includes sophomore outside Brett Wildman, sophomore outside/right side Cal Fisher, and sophomore setter Cole Bogner.
“With its key pieces still in place, it is no shock that Coach Pav’s Nittany Lions are the preseason EIVA favorite,” Espero said. But, he noted, “NJIT could challenge.”
NJIT is led by senior outside Alvara Gimeno.
The last time an EIVA team made the national semifinals was 2015 when Penn State lost to Lewis.
MIVA — Loyola is the pick to win the league, but barely. The Ramblers got four of the eight first-place votes. Lewis, picked to finish second, got two votes, and third-place Ohio State also got two. Ball State was picked fourth, followed by McKendree, Purdue Fort Wayne, Lindenwood, and Quincy.
“MIVA teams’ talent seems to get deeper in the conference each year,” Espero said. “In recent years, one would only be looking at Ohio State, Loyola and Lewis as top contenders, however you legitimately have to look at teams like McKendree, Ball State, and Purdue Fort Wayne, who have the ability to upset the MIVA apple cart.”
Loyola is led by junior outside Cole Schlothauer and senior setter Garrett Zolg. Lewis has graduate student Tyler Mitchem, the MIVA preseason player of the year, at middle and right side. Lewis junior setter Kevin Kauling is also back.
As mentioned, Lindenwood is at Stanford on Wednesday and Thursday, and Loyola is scheduled to be at Hawai’i on Wednesday. There’s a full slate of games set for Friday.
The MIVA last had NCAA champions in 2016 and ’17 when Ohio State went back-to-back.
CONFERENCE CAROLINAS — Mount Olive won the regular season in 2021, but Belmont Abbey won the conference tournament and the NCAA bid that went with it. Mount Olive is again the choice of the coaches to win the league again and got seven of the eight first-place votes. The other went to Belmont Abbey, picked to finish second. The rest of the poll shows North Greenville and King tied for fourth, followed by Barton, Emmanuel, Erskine, and Lees-McRae.
Mount Olive is led by Australian Tobi Azeez, a junior outside hittter. Belmont Abbey has right side Andrew Kohut, a senior from Illinois.
Play was scheduled to begin Wednesday when Pepperdine was set for back-to-back visits to Mount Olive, but those matches were canceled.
Is this the year that the the league wins an NCAA match? Since Conference Carolinas began getting an automatic bid in 2014, it has gone 0-7, with only Barton taking a set off Princeton in 2019. Other than that, all sweeps, but in 2015 Pfeiffer (no longer in the conference) lost to Loyola but took the Ramblers to 33-31 in the second set.