Throughout most of the 2023 season, many who follow men’s volleyball agreed which teams were the top four in the country: UCLA, Penn State, Hawai’i and Long Beach State.

In no particular order.

With the season down to the national semifinals, the four teams still standing are …

It probably doesn’t need to be said.

Thursday’s matches on the campus of George Mason in Fairfax, Virginia, pit top overall seed UCLA (29-2) against Long Beach State (21-4) in the first semifinal at 5 p.m. Eastern and No. 2 seed Hawai’i (28-2) against Penn State (27-3) at 7:30 p.m. The Rainbow Warriors are the two-time defending national champions.

Long Beach advanced by defeating NCAA Tournament newcomer Grand Canyon, 22-25, 25-17, 25-22, 25-23 on Tuesday. Penn State also advanced in four sets, defeating Ohio State, 25-22, 24-26, 25-13, 26-24.

Wednesday, we profiled UCLA and middle Merrick McHenry and setter Andrew Rowan. Earlir this week, we wrote about Long Beach State.  When the season was just underway, we wrote about Hawai’i and its Greek standouts, Spryos Chakas and Dimitrios Mouchlias. And Penn State coach Mark Pavlik and UCLA counterpart John Speraw were part of our Zoom after the NCAA bracket was announced.

Here are some notes quotes and numbers heading into the final four:

Championship history

Hawai’i: The Rainbow Warriors, winners of the past two NCAA titles, are looking to accomplish a feat that hasn’t been done for nearly 40 years: Win at least three consecutive titles. The last team to do it was UCLA, which won four from 1981-84.

Coach Charlie Wade said the title streak isn’t something that’s talked about a lot in their gym. It doesn’t need to be talked about.

“I heard (setter) Jakob Thelle say — probably when we had won the regular-season (Big West) title — ‘We have not accomplished anything meaningful yet,’ ” Wade said. “So as we go through this, the ultimate goal is to win the national championship. We don’t talk a lot about it because everybody knows that’s the goal.”

UCLA: The Bruins have the most men’s volleyball titles in NCAA history (19) but haven’t won one since 2006. UCLA has appeared in only one final since, losing to Long Beach in 2018.

Bruins coach John Speraw has coached three national championship teams, all at UC Irvine (2007, 2009, 2012).

Long Beach State: Coach Alan Knipe’s team won back-to-back titles in 2018-19 then came up short in the championship match last season. Long Beach has one other title in its history: 1991, and Knipe was a player on that team.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions, for all of their wins and all of the players coach Mark Pavlik has sent to the U.S. national team in recent years, have come up short in the tournament. They haven’t won a title since 2008 and haven’t played in a championship match since 2010, a loss to Stanford.

Perhaps a good omen: Penn State has 13 years between the program’s two national titles (1994, 2008). If the canceled 2020 tournament is thrown out,  it would be 13 champions crowned between Penn State’s 2008 title and this year’s final.

Head to head

In March, Hawai’i was the host for its Outrigger Invitational, and it turned out to be a national semifinals preview of sorts. UCLA and Penn State were among the teams, and all took turns knocking off each other:

UCLA beat Penn State in five.

Penn State beat Hawai’i in four, the Rainbow Warriors’ first loss of the season after 16 straight wins.

Hawai’i beat UCLA in four.

“You set up that schedule a year in advance, and for those teams all to be there in one weekend was exciting, great for the fans,” Speraw said. “The environment, of course, was fantastic. The pressure that you’re under when you play UH in Hawai’i with a crowd like that, when it’s 1 vs. 2, is very simulative of what you might have here.”

Also in the regular season, Hawai’i and Long Beach split a pair, each sweeping the other in Big West play. UCLA took both regular-season meetings from Long Beach and lost to Penn State in four in a match played in State College, Pa.

Long Beach defeated Penn State in four in January, also in State College.

Penn State’s Ryan Merk digs against Ohio State/NCAA photo

By the numbers

.381: Team hitting percentage for UCLA, tops in the nation.

1-1: National championship score in the Pavlik household. Penn State’s Mark Pavlik won a title as a head coach in 2008. His wife, Heather, guided the Juniata women to the Division III national championship in the fall, her first as a head coach.

3.96: Kills per set by Hawai’i’s Dimitrios Mouchlias during the regular season, tops among players in the final four.

8: National championships between coaches Alan Knipe (2) of Long Beach, Mark Pavlik (1) of Penn State, John Speraw (3) of UCLA and Charlie Wade (2) of Hawai’i

14: International players listed on the semifinalists’ rosters

26 feet, 7 inches: Combined height of middle blockers Toby Ezeonu (Penn State, 6-foot-7), Guilherme Voss (Hawai’i, 6-7), Merrick McHenry (UCLA, 6-7) and Simon Torwie (Long Beach, 6-10).

27: 2023 AVCA All-Americans between the four semifinalists (seven each for Penn State, UCLA and Long Beach and six for Hawai’i)

29: Seasons Mark Pavlik has been Penn State’s head coach

105-11: Combined record of the semifinalists

208: Service aces by Penn State, tops in the nation and one more than UCLA in the same number of sets (105) during the regular season

671: Combined kills this season for Hawai’i’s Greek tandem of Mouchlias (356) and Spyros Chakas (315)

2,192: Combined career kills for Penn State’s Cal Fisher and Brett Wildman

They said it

UCLA coach John Speraw: “It just seems like we were so consistent in the way that we approached every single match from a competitive mindset. I don’t know that we really had any significant emotional (or) competitive energy letdown through the entire course of the season.”

Speraw: “From here on out, it’s probably going to be five-set matches and a point here or there is going to make a difference.”

UCLA middle blocker Merrick McHenry: “They (Long Beach) definitely are playing better volleyball than when we first saw them, but we are, too.”

Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe (on the semifinal teams): “It’s impressive for our sport, impressive for our game. I think it’s going to be great for the volleyball fans to really see men’s volleyball at a really high level with this kind of parity in the final four.”

Long Beach setter Aidan Knipe: “We were reaching a high level at the beginning of the year but there were also points where maybe we were falling off a little bit. But now I think we’re playing a very high-level, consistent brand of volleyball.”

Alan Knipe (on libero Mason Briggs): “I think he’s right there with those guys … I think Mason’s volleyball IQ, his technique, his passion for the game, his ability to play at a high level, his communication, all those things are on par with all the great liberos … Absolutely he has all the ingredients to do really, really well at the next level.”

Briggs (on setter Aidan Knipe): “He always gives us (passers) the credit, but the real credit is to him that we have the ability to go in and out of system. When someone rips a serve, we have that freedom and that comfort to bring it off the net a little bit and be comfortable there because we know he’s comfortable there. … He’s able to keep us in system and continue to run a balanced offense throughout the entire match and the ebbs and flows of a match.”

Hawaii coach Charlie Wade (on Penn State’s Cal Fisher and Brett Wildman): “You’ve got two of the best servers in the country right in a row there. One is a lefty. They both bring big-time heat, so it will be a challenge for sure.”

Hawaii setter Jakob Thelle (on the rematch with Penn State): “It’s good matchup for use to get that second game, to get that second shot to beat them this time. They played a really good game against us at home, so we’re looking forward to giving everything we’ve got tomorrow.”

Hawaii libero Brett Sheward (on Thelle): “For me it’s the consistency, professionalism off the court and then just leading our team on the court. He’s done a really good job for five years now of being a consistent leader. Obviously his service pressure, his blocking, his on-two capabilities are the things that really set him apart. But I think the everyday stuff is really important to our team as well.”

Wade (on the Long Beach/UCLA semifinal): “Somewhat jokingly, I say I hope they play seven sets.”

Penn State coach Mark Pavlik: “When was the last time we had a national championship semifinal that had the four top-ranked teams in the country? I think it’s a tribute to what those teams have done all year long. I think it’s just going to be an outstanding day of volleyball … and everybody can look forward to the national championship.”

Penn State opposite Cal Fisher (on setter Cole Bogner): “I think he’s very good at making other teams’ blockers confused. He’s very deceptive and can often catch middles drifting … He knows how to find holes.”

Pavlik: “I think this team has been through the toughest schedule that any of the teams I have coached have been through. They seem to have embraced the competition that’s been thrown at them.”

AVCA All-Americans, POY, COY

Thelle of Hawai’i was named the AVCA’s national player of the year. Speraw is the national coach of the year. Of the 12-member first team, only Hilir Henno of UC Irvine and Jacob Pasteur of Ohio State are not in the national semifinals.

Click here for the AVCA first team, second team and honorable mentions. 

Long Beach State’s Spencer Olivier tools the Grand Canyon blocks/NCAA photo


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