UC Irvine’s Hilir Henno/Jim Wolf photo

As the NCAA Division I-II men’s regular season winds down this week and conference tournaments begin, everyone seems to be chasing Long Beach State, the near unanimous No. 1 in the AVCA coaches poll

But can No. 2 UCLA defend its title?

And if Long Beach wins the Big West and UCLA the MPSF, which of either No. 3 Grand Canyon, No. 4 UC Irvine or No. 5 Hawai’i will get left out of the eight-team NCAA field?

The National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship at Long Beach State starts with quarterfinals April 30 that will include six winners of automatic bids and just two at-large teams. That means a pretty stout squad will be left out.

Automatic bids go to winners of the Big West, Conference Carolinas, EIVA, MIVA, MPSF and — for the first time — the SIAC.

That means just two at-large bids in the eight-team bracket, which will make for some difficult decisions for the NCAA selection committee.

The tournament at Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid has a traditional format of the No. 1 seed vs. No. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5. 

The semifinals are May 2 and the national-championship match is May 4.

Big West

When the season began, Long Beach State, on paper, seemed to have the necessary chops to unseat UCLA as national champion. Coach Alan Knipe’s team (22-1, 8-0 Big West) has done nothing to alter that notion.

Behind a staunch defense that leads the nation in blocks per set (3.36) – freshman Lazar Bouchkov (1.37) and senior Simon Torwie (1.32) rank first and third nationally – Beach limits opponents to just .166 hitting. Also tops in the nation, by the way.

Having arguably the best libero in the nation (senior Mason Briggs, sixth in the country at 2.43 digs per set) doesn’t hurt the defense’s numbers either.

The Beach is riding a 12-match winning streak during which it has dropped only seven sets. Long Beach concludes the regular season with a home-and-home showdown with Cal Irvine.

UC Irvine (17-8, 6-2 Big West) is coming off a split with Hawai’i, emblematic of what has been a see-saw year. 

UCI has wins over Hawai’i, No. 6 BYU (twice) and GCU, which held the top spot in the poll briefly this season. But the Anteaters also have lost twice to Hawai’i (one in the out-of-conference Outrigger Invitational), twice to UCLA and once each to Lewis and CSUN.

UCI’s Hilir Henno goes line against UCLA/UCI photo

But coach David Kniffin is confident his team is capable of lasting awhile in the postseason. Injuries have limited the number of times he has had his projected starting lineup on the floor. That lineup, however, has almost always included junior Hilir Henno, the favorite to be national player of the year.

“Hilir out of necessity has had to carry more of a load than we calculated he would need to, and he’s responded exceptionally well,” Kniffin said. “If he’s not player of the year, I don’t know who is.

“He’s kind of been forced into all situations and has played truly above an anticipated level.”

To wit, Henno, a 6-foot-8 French outside hitter, is averaging 4.73 kills per set, which is second in the nation, hitting .383, averaging 1.38 digs per set and has 43 service aces and 53 total blocks.

Hawai’i (21-5, 4-4 Big West) is a curious case. Spyros Chakas was lost for the season. The Greek was averaging 4.15 kills-per-set while hitting .417 and might have had the edge on Henno for player of the year.

The Rainbow Warriors enter the final series of the regular season with UC San Diego at 21-5, but that includes going 4-4 since Chakas’ injury in mid-March.

Hawai’i still has plenty of firepower with the likes of senior Alaka’i Todd (3.20 kills per set), freshman Louis Sakanoko (2.15 kills per set) and fifth-years Chaz Galloway (2.03) and Guilherme Voss (1.87).

And they have a dynamic freshman setter in Tread Rosenthal – all 6-foot-9 of him – who already is establishing himself as one of the nation’s best (10.09 assists per set).

The big question is: If Hawai’i doesn’t win the conference tournament and finishes tied for second with UCI or behind UCI in third in the standings, would the NCAA give both automatic bids to the Big West?

“I always wonder if the NCAA would be willing to do that,” Kniffin said. “The conference tournaments are really based around opportunity, creating opportunity across the country. … We’re definitely not putting the best eight teams in the country in the NCAA Tournament.

“When it comes down to two at-larges from the same conference, I think that’s in conflict with the NCAA’s objectives.”

Conference Carolinas

Belmont Abbey (17-4, 12-1 Conference Carolinas) heads into the final week of regular-season with a two-game lead over North Greenville (13-8, 10-3). And it appears this could be a two-horse race for the conference’s automatic NCAA bid.

Belmont Abbey has two players averaging better than three kills per set: redshirt freshman Zach Puentes (3.37) and junior Matthew Staskunas (3.21).

North Greenville, led by senior Diego Rosich’s 3.34 kills per set and freshman Logan Taylor’s 10.20 assists, is the only team to beat Belmont Abbey in the conference. But North Greenville has had some surprising stumbles, losing to King and Barton, both in the bottom half of the conference standings.

Don’t discount Erskine (9-4 in the conference) and Mount Olive (8-5). Erskine has a three-headed offensive attack with senior Edgerrin Austin (3.67 kills), sophomore Pablo Zamar (3.39) and senior Kacper Rybarczyk (2.83). Mount Olive, meanwhile, brings the defense, with freshman Maksim Kazanov, junior Holden Maryott and sophomore Constantinos Iacovou all averaging more than a block per set.


Penn State (19-6, 8-0 EIVA) and red-hot George Mason (17-7, 6-2) meet for two matches in State College, Pa., this weekend with the conference’s top seed on the line.

But what if Penn State doesn’t do what it is “supposed to” do? What if it gets upset in the EIVA Tournament?

It happened two years ago, when Princeton swooped in and knocked the Nittany Lions out in the EIVA semis on its way to earning the conference’s auto bid.

Penn State certainly could make a case for an at-large bid if it at least gets to the EIVA final. It beat Ohio State in back-to-back January matches when the Buckeyes were No. 1 and also has a win over Ball State. But Penn State also has losses to UCLA, CSUN and Purdue Fort Wayne.

Plus, the Nittany Lions – in all likelihood – would be competing with the losers of the Big West and MPSF tournaments for an auto bid. That (probably) would mean some combination of Long Beach State, UCI, Hawai’i, Grand Canyon and UCLA.

For anyone else in the EIVA, their only hope is to win the tournament.

One final note on Penn State: It has done a decent job filling the monumental holes left by the graduations of Cal Fisher, Brett Wildman and setter Cole Bogner. Fifth-year John Kerr leads the team with 3.64 kills per set and hits at a .345 clip, while senior middle Toby Ezeonu, at .485, is among the highest percentage hitters in the nation.

Freshman Michael Schwob and senior Luke Snyder have split setting duties throughout the season, with each contributing in the 9.50 assists-per-set range.

Mason has won 12 matches in a row and juinor Omar Hoyos is averaging 3.58 kills and has 28 aces.

Tinaishe Ndavazocheva/Samantha Blankenship, Ball State University


The MIVA shapes up as one of the more interesting races.

Ball State (20-9, 13-3 MIVA), Loyola Chicago (18-9, 12-4) and Ohio State (19-8, 11-5) finished the regular season 1-2-3. Any one is capable of taking the conference tournament title.

Ball State is the hottest of the bunch, having won 12 of its past 14 matches. That followed a streak of losing five of six. Coach Donan Cruz has been dealing with injuries throughout his lineup all season and constantly has had to adjust.

“The MIVA has been such a fun regular season,” Cruz said. “I think our league is capable of playing some of the best volleyball in the country. … It’s very clear that our ability to beat some of the best teams in the country is there.

“We feel good about where we’re at right now. Our team is relatively healthy. We’re, obviously, out one of our top outsides, but that has never been an excuse for us in the matches that we have had to compete without him. And I think our team has really stepped up. Really throughout the year, we’ve been a piece here and a piece there not in the lineup, and we’ve never played full strength for a streak of matches. The next man up mentality has been the story of our season, and we’ve really handled that with grace and maturity.”

Fortunately for the Cardinals, they have one of the most dynamic players in the country in junior Tinaishe “Mr. T.” Ndavazocheva (4.05, kills, 1.30 digs, 19 aces).

If Ball State should lose at any point in the conference tournament, its chances for an at-large bid would be on shaky ground. The Cardinals have a win over Ohio State, but lack what might be considered a signature victory (or two) that would impress the selection committee.

“Sadly I think the metric that is used (to make tournament selections) doesn’t really allow an opportunity for us this year. I think we’re going to have to win out,” Cruz said. “I don’t say that as if I have a problem with system and the metric that we use. I’m just simply saying it’s a numbers thing.

“We’ve had our opportunities, and maybe if we had done better winning one of those BYU matches on the road, we had our opportunities with Stanford and USC. … We felt like we had opportunities and we didn’t take advantage of those non-conference matches. And the nature of where other top teams in other conferences are, I would assume they’re in better position.”

Cruz, as probably is the case with many coaches, would like to see a larger tournament bracket. For now, this is the hand the MIVA and the other conferences are dealt.

Ohio State might have a better chance at an at-large even if it doesn’t win the conference tournament. The Buckeyes spent some time at No. 1 this season and have wins over UCLA, USC (twice), Lewis (twice) and Ball State.

But Ohio State is staggering at the stretch, having gone 5-5 in its past 10 matches. Of course, any team with senior Jacob Pasteur (3.39 kills per set, 55 total aces, 1.21 digs per set and 44 total blocks) has a chance.

And Pasteur has been convinced from Day 1 that this team can shake off adversity.

“What this group has done, especially in the last year, is learning how to win,” Pasteur said during the early season First Point Challenge in Austin, Texas. “Ohio State has always had a good amount of talent to win, but it’s that mental fortitude and understanding your situation.

“This group has worked really, really hard at being losers, completely honest,” Pasteur continued with a laugh. “Our first two years, I believe we were an under-.500 team. It stings and … I think some teams get used to that, losing over and over again. A big credit to our staff and our players and our leaders to take control over our team and our program to a degree where we can learn how to win.”

Loyola has a win over Hawai’i – before the Chakas injury – and two over Ohio State and has split with Lindenwood.


Besides Ball State, the darkhorse Royals (13-11, 9-7)are the hottest team in the MIVA, having won six straight, including a victory over Ohio State. They also have a win over Loyola on February 23 and a sweep of McKendree, which was No. 18 at the time, on March 20 to kick off the winning streak.

Serving has been a big weapon for the Royals, with seniors A.J. Lewis (.488) and Clay Wieter (.482) ranking 6-7 in the nation in aces per set. As a team, Lindenwood ranked No. 12 nationally in aces per set (1.64 per set). Wieter also averages 3.28 kills per set.


UCLA (20-4, 9-1) reasserted itself as the alpha dog in the conference by sweeping previously unbeaten (in the conference) Grand Canyon (20-4, 8-2) over the weekend. Barring a major slip-up against 0-10 Concordia Irvine this coming weekend, the Bruins will be the top seed in the MPSF Tournament.

Before a match was even played this season, many seemed ready to hand a second consecutive national title to UCLA, which returned most of its main players. But, in January, coach John Speraw cautioned that “this cake isn’t baked yet.”

Well, perhaps the timer on the oven just went off.

UCLA has won nine in a row and shows every sign of looking like the team most thought they would be. The Bruins seem to be doing everything right: serving people off the court (third nationally with 1.93 aces per set), playing defense (seventh nationally at 2.48 blocks per set) and hitting with efficiency (first nationally at .368).

GCU, though not a huge one, has been a surprise. The Lopes remain a dangerous club and a tough out. They are fourth in the nation in hitting (.349), 10th in blocks (2.32) and third at 12.92 kills per set.

Junior setter Nicholas Slight ranks third in the nation at 10.61 assists per set, and sophomore middle Cameron Thorne ranks fourth in the nation at 1.32 blocks.

BYU (16-8, 7-5) can’t be counted out, either. And though they probably have not performed up to expectations, Stanford (11-11, 4-6), Pepperdine (17-8, 5-5) and USC (12-12, 3-7) are always dangerous.

If the conference championship match comes down to UCLA and GCU, the selection committee will have a hard time not giving the loser one of the two automatic bids.

But UCI’s Kniffin harkens back to what happened to his group last season and said it might not be that cut-and-dried.

“We didn’t go to the NCAA Tournament last year, and the knock on us was that we didn’t beat a top-five team despite beating Long Beach in our conference tournament,” he said. “Grand Canyon … they also haven’t beaten a top-five team.

“They lost the head-to-head match up with us, and if UCLA does win the conference tournament, I think the committee would be in an interesting spot where your only natural selections would be to put three Big West teams in the tournament.”


Someone is going to make history. This is the first year that the Division II conference comprising of historically Black schools will get an automatic bid.

The battle in the winner-take-all conference tournament looks to be coming down to Fort Valley State (12-8, 8-0) and Edward Waters (11-14, 8-1). The schools will meet Friday at Edward Waters.

Fort Valley sophomore Isaiah Fedd leads the conference in hitting (.339) and is second in kills per set (3.35). FVS, in fact, has three of the conference’s top four hitters in terms of percentage: Fedd, junior Jaxon Hicks (second, .292) and senior Chey Cooper (fourth, .259).

Fedd and Cooper, meanwhile, rank 1-2 in the conference in aces (0.57, 0.44).

Edward Waters junior Tavion Ford leads the SIAC in kills per set (3.66), and sophomore Richard Hendricks ranks fourth (2.84).

Flash in the pan?

The Northeast Conference does not yet qualify for an automatic NCAA bid. So St. Francis (PA) hopes an at-large might be in the offing.

Despite the Red Flash being unbeaten in the conference with two matches to go against Fairleigh Dickinson this weekend, their resume for an at-large would be a tough sell. St. Francis lacks a signature win, failing to defeat any programs with tournament pedigree.

Mike Rumbaugh, the Red Flash’s affable, longtime coach, might have to wait until the NEC qualifies for an automatic bid to finally get his long-awaited trip to nationals.


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