Long Beach State held a vise grip on the top spot in men’s college volleyball for the past two years, but with the graduation of the 49ers’ stacked 2019 senior class — which included two-time AVCA national player of the year TJ DeFalco, Kyle Ensing, and Josh Tuaniga — the field has opened up, allowing a chance for a new champion to emerge.

The AVCA preseason poll highlighted Hawai’i as the heir apparent, while Princeton, Lewis, BYU, and Barton kick off the year as the top dogs in their various conferences.

Keep reading for a complete breakdown of the preseason AVCA poll, and conference-by-conference preseason rankings and players to watch.

AVCA Poll: Hawai’i received all but two first-place votes in the national preseason top 15. The Warriors had a pretty fantastic 2019 season, ending the year with a 28-3 record and a runner-up finish in the NCAA Tournament. Their only losses all came at the hands of Long Beach State, back-to-back to end the regular season, then, after beating the 49ers in the Big West championship match, Hawai’i lost to LBSU in the national championship.

While Long Beach graduated six starters, Hawai’i returns four major contributors, including first-team All-Americans opposite Rado Parapunov and libero Gage Worsley, second-team All-American middle Patrick Gasman, and starting outside hitter Colton Cowell. The biggest lineup hole to fill will be that of the Flying Dutchman Stijn van Tilburg.

UCLA followed the Warriors in the AVCA poll, receiving one first-place vote. The Bruins bring back five starters for 2020, with first-team All-American middle Daenan Gyimah leading the way and sophomore setter Adam Parks looking to play a big role following the graduation of setter Micah Ma’a.

At Nos. 3, 4, and 5, it’s BYU, Long Beach State, and UC Santa Barbara. The first non-West Coast team to appear in the preseason poll is Lewis, the reigning MIVA champ, at No. 6.

Stanford, UC Irvine, Princeton, and Pepperdine complete the top 10, while Loyola, USC, CSUN, Purdue Fort Wayne, and Penn State fill out the remainder of the poll.

Click here for the complete AVCA men’s poll.

Big West: Hawai’i unanimously topped the Big West preseason coaches poll for all the reasons highlighted above. UC Santa Barbara came in at No. 2. Reigning Big West Freshman of the Year Ryan Wilcox, a Honolulu native and product of the legendary Punahou High School volleyball program, will be the key player for the Gauchos as they seek to improve on 2019’s 18-10, 4-6 record. The 6-2 outside hitter finished second on the team with 254 kills in 2019, trailing only then-senior Corey Chavers.

Long Beach State enters its rebuilding season ranked No. 3 in the league. The 49ers’ return just one starter, middle Simon Andersen, however, outside hitter Ethan Siegfried was first off the bench in 2019 and will no doubt be a key piece this season. With the No. 3-ranked incoming class and 19 total guys on the roster — including two Garys, two Grants, and two Aidans — depth should be no issue for coach Alan Knipe.

UC Irvine at No. 4, CSUN at No. 5, and UC San Diego at No. 6 round out the preseason ranks in the smallest men’s volleyball conference.

Conference Carolinas: For the past three years, Barton and King have been the top two teams in the Conference Carolinas, and they are once again the favorites heading into 2020, coming in at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the preseason coaches poll.

Both programs went 14-2 in the league last season, but Barton won the head-to-head meeting in the final of the conference tournament and earned the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

Barton returns a number of key players, including honorable mention All-American Vasilis Mandilaris. Now a senior, the 6-5 opposite enters his final college season as a two-time Conference Carolinas offensive player of the year and three-time all-league selection. The native of Chalkida, Greece led the league in kills (466) last year.

Other key returners for the Bulldogs are setter Oscar Fiorentino and outside hitter Adrian Iglesias, now both sophomores.

King returns its top three offensive players in outside hitters Sean Kohlhase and Suetonius Harris, and opposite Joshua Kim. The Tornadoes will have to fill a few holes in the starting lineup however, with the graduation of 2019 setter Christy Chandler and middles Dalton Johnson and Jon Wheaton.

Mount Olive comes in at No. 3 in the preseason poll, then it’s Belmont Abbey, Limestone, North Greenville, Emmanuel, Erskine and Lees-McRae.

Conference Carolinas gets one of the NCAA’s six tournament bids, but has yet to get an at-large bid, so winning it all is paramount.

EIVA: Princeton leads the headlines for men’s volleyball on the East Coast. The Tigers won the EIVA in 2019 and enter 2020 with their highest ranking ever in the AVCA poll — No. 10. With an 18-13 overall record, 13-1 in the EIVA, Princeton claimed the league title and then won its first NCAA Tournament match, advancing to the quarterfinals.

The trio of George Huhmann, Parker Dixon and Greg Luck led Princeton’s offense as juniors. They’re all back for one final go-around, with starting setter Joe Kelly expertly distributing the ball among the three.

The only major losses for the Tigers are outside hitter Kendall Ratter and libero Corry Short.

Penn State, which Princeton defeated in the 2019 conference final, will be the toughest competition for the Tigers. Six-foot-11 lefty opposite Cal Mende is a senior this year and looking to have a big season after battling injuries throughout 2019. He played in just 18 of Penn State’s 30 matches, but in previous years either led the team in kills or kills per set and earned honorable mention All-America honors as a freshman and sophomore.

With three other redshirt seniors, in addition to Mende, Penn State certainly doesn’t lack experience. That group includes returning lead offensive contributor Henrik Falck Lauten, a 6-5 outside hitter from Norway, setter Luke Braswell, and middle Jason Donorovich. And after strong freshman seasons, setter Cole Bogner and outside hitter Brett Wildman will be key again as sophomores.

George Mason, No. 3 in the conference preseason poll, returns one of the EIVA’s top attackers in 2019, Hayden Wagner. Wagner led all players with 4.26 kills per set (and came in fifth nationally), ranked third with 379 total kills, and fifth with a .297 hitting percentage. Wagner collected four EIVA offensive player of the week awards in 2019 and earned honorable mention All-America and first-team All-EIVA honors. His 5.20 points per set average ranked him third among all players nationally.

The Patriots also bring back their second-best offensive contributor in 6-7 Sam Greenslade.

NJIT entered the preseason poll at No. 4, while Harvard, Saint Francis, Charleston, and Sacred Heart filled out the list in that order.

Saint Francis graduated three of its four top attackers, hence the low ranking in the preseason poll, but the Red Flash do return leading scorer Michael Fisher, who ranked second in the league with 385 kills and helped SFU be the only team in the league to beat Princeton last year.

MIVA: Lewis, ranked No. 6 in the national preseason poll, earns the title of preseason favorite in the MIVA. The Flyers are the reigning champions of the league and national semifinalists, but they have graduated a number of key pieces, including setter Matt Yoshimoto, starting hitters Julian Moses and Mitch Perinar, and libero Michael Simmons.

Before you start doubting Lewis’ ability to repeat in the MIVA given those losses, keep in mind head coach Dan Friend returns two excellent middles in Tyler Mitchem and TJ Murray, not to mention star outside hitter Ryan Coenen. As for the setter position, incoming freshman Kevin Kauling, the No. 5 recruit in his class should be more than up to the task, and at 6-foot-8 also provides a formidable blocking presence.

The league’s coaches predict Purdue Fort Wayne to be the toughest competition for the Flyers. Pelegrin Vargas, the preseason conference player of the year, powers the Mastodons’ offense — the two-time honorable mention AVCA All-American led the MIVA with 406 kills in 2019.

The Fort Wayne squad, led by coach Ryan “Rock” Perrotte for the fifth year, boasts quite a bit of international talent. In addition to San Juan, Puerto Rico product Vargas, the Mastodons’ 2020 roster features two other Puerto Rico natives, along with Portuguese setter Frederico Santos and Chilean middle blocker Tomas Gago.

Loyola, ranked third in the league preseason poll, welcomes a class of newcomers ranked sixth in the VolleyballMag.com recruiting class rankings. That group of newbies includes six players that appeared on the 2019 VBM Boys Fab 50, as well as the Ramblers first international recruit in more than a decade: 6-10 German middle Anton Frank.

Expect a few of those young players to crack the lineup — there’s plenty of opportunity following the graduation of five contributors to Loyola’s 21-8 (12-2 MIVA) record last season. The biggest loss will be Collin Mahan, who led the Ramblers with 362 kills, hitting an impressive .319 with 49 aces. He left the program as the only player to eclipse 1,000 career kills, 600 digs and 100 aces.

Setter Garret Zolg, now a junior and a two-time honorable-mention AVCA All-American, will play a key role in creating team chemistry and connection with this new group of attackers.

McKendree, voted fourth in the conference preseason poll, brings back a trio of talented starters in setter Ryan Serrano, middle blocker Wyatt Dimke (younger brother of former Creighton setter Lydia Dimke), and opposite Zach Schnittker.

Ohio State, for its part, is starting off the season with a new head coach, former assistant coach Kevin Burch, and without its star Jake Hanes. The 6-10 opposite missed a portion of the 2019 season due to injury but was a game-changer for the Buckeyes when he was healthy. Despite missing those matches, he still finished the year ranked first in the league with 3.46 kills per set and 5.01 points per set.

But instead of being a key piece for the Buckeyes in a rebuilding year, Hanes, who would have been a redshirt junior, has decided to sit out the college season, attempt to graduate as soon as possible in the spring, and then move to California to train with the national team in hopes of earning a spot on the roster for the Tokyo Olympics.

Ball State, Lindenwood, and Quincy fill out the remainder of the preseason poll, coming in at No. 6, No. 7, and No. 8.

MPSF: UCLA garnered the No. 2 spot in the national rankings, with conference rival BYU coming in third. In the MPSF preseason poll, however, that order is flipped with BYU being selected as the favorite.

After winning the league three years in a row (2016, 2017, 2018), 2019 was a bit of a down year for the Cougars, as they went 13-12 overall, 6-6 in MPSF play, and ended the season with a loss in the conference semifinals. For 2020, however, they bring back 16 returners, including 6-7 second-team All-American opposite Gabi Garcia Fernandez and 6-9 honorable mention All-American outside hitter Davide Gardini. Gardini ranked second behind Fernandez in kills and was named the MPSF Freshman of the Year at the conclusion of the 2019 season.

Perhaps most impactful will be a healthy Wil Stanley at the setter position. Stanley suffered a season-ending injury 13 matches into the 2019 slate and head coach Shawn Olmstead had to move outside hitter Cyrus Fa’alogo to the setter position. Fa’alogo then got injured and freshman Brody Earnest was selected as the next man up. Stanley appears to be back to 100 percent. Having consistency in that position will be huge for the Cougars, but a fourth MPSF championship in five years will be no easy feat with UCLA also in the mix.

As mentioned above, UCLA brings back five starters with its biggest losses being the extremely versatile setter/hitter Micah Ma’a and outside hitter Dylan Missry. John Speraw, however, welcomed in the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country for the third year in a row. That group includes the nation’s top recruit 6-6 outside hitter Alex Knight and five other Boys Fab 50 honorees. Then there’s two internationals, Mads Kyed Jensen, a 6-10 setter with Danish national team experience, and Canadian youth national teamer Cole Ketrzynski, a 6-8 outside hitter.

We’re hoping to see freshman setter Marcus Partain get some playing time this spring. In 2017, Marcus qualified for the AVP Hermosa Beach main draw alongside his younger brother Miles. At 17 and 15 years old, they became the youngest pair ever, male or female, to make an AVP main draw, thus becoming household names among beach volleyball fans.

Led by junior middle Kyler Presho, junior opposite Jaylen Jasper and senior setter Paul Bischoff, Stanford, ranked No. 3 in the MPSF preseason poll, has the potential to put together its best season since 2014 (the last time they got past the MPSF quarterfinals).

Pepperdine, which won the league last year, enters the new season at No. 4 in the preseason poll. Of the Waves’ seven starters, only libero Noah Dyer and setter Rob Mullahey return for 2020; however, Pepperdine’s No. 4-ranked recruiting class should help fill those offensive openings, including Akin Akinwumi, a 6-5 outside hitter ranked fifth in the Class of 2019.

USC and Grand Canyon tied for fifth in the preseason coaches poll, while Concordia comes in at No. 7.

Season under way: A few programs have already started their 2020 seasons.

Long Beach State, Lewis, UCLA, and Ohio State schlepped up to Toronto to play exhibition matches against a selection of top Canadian teams. So far, Canada leads the overall results in the Can-Am Holiday Showcase. 

Long Beach State lost its opener on Saturday to reigning Canadian national champion Trinity Western in five (25-16, 23-25, 25-21, 25-27, 15-13). No official stats were shared, but LBSU’s freshman libero Mason Briggs was named player of the match for his team. 

Trinity Western then downed UCLA in straight sets (25-20, 25-17, 25-15) on Sunday. UCLA also lost to Ryerson in four Sunday (25-21, 25-14, 19-25, 25-19).

Ohio State has split its Can-Am matches, losing in four to Alberta, but beating McMaster, also in four. 

Lewis tallied a victory for the USA, sweeping Ryerson on Saturday. 

The Can-Am Showcase continues through New Year’s Eve, with Monday’s schedule featuring Ohio State versus Ryerson, Lewis versus McMaster, and Long Beach State vs. Alberta. On Tuesday, Long Beach takes on McMaster, Lewis plays Trinity Western, and UCLA has Alberta. 

The first official NCAA men’s volleyball match took place Sunday in Irvine, California, with No. 8 UC Irvine downing Princeton in straight sets (25-23, 25-15, 25-20).

The Anteaters out-played their East Coast opponents in every facet of the game, hitting .316 to Princeton’s .163, and leading in aces (7-4), blocks (10-7.5) and digs (31-27). UCI sophomore Alexandre Nsakanda led all players with 11 kills, while Parker Dixon led Princeton with 10. 

“I like that we didn’t try to play beyond our abilities in December,” UCI coach David Kniffin said. “We kept it simple and I know we have more in us as far as potential, but kept it simple tonight. It is nice to pick up a win against a top team from a top conference.”

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