GCU celebrates beaeting UCLA to win the MPSF/Ken Williams photo

Defending-champion UCLA got the top seed Sunday when the NCAA’s National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship bracket was announced.

Long Beach State is No. 2, Grand Canyon — the team that beat UCLA in the MPSF title match — is No. 3, followed by UC Irvine and Penn State.

And those two will play what will no doubt be the showcase match of the quarterfinals.

Play begins Tuesday, April 30, with quarterfinals at Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid. Those matches can only be seen on NCAA.com.

UCLA, which won the MPSF regular season and has the strongest numbers in all the factors that go into seeding consideration, got one of two at-large bids and plays eighth-seeded Fort Valley State, the first SIAC team in the field.

“I understand how the criteria work and why we’re No. 1,” UCLA coach John Speraw said, “but I know it doesn’t really matter at this point because there are a number of teams that are capable of winning it. I think it will be a really exciting week of volleyball with some teams that are playing great at the end of the year.”

It’s a field that is finally expanded to eight teams, up one from the past three years, as the SIAC gained an automatic bid.

Long Beach State, which won the Big West, plays seventh-seeded Belmont Abbey, which won the Conference Carolinas automatic bid. 

GCU, which got the MPSF automatic, plays sixth-seeded Ohio State, which won the MIVA and its bid.

UC Irvine lost to Long Beach State in the Big West final and got the other at-large, while Penn State dominated the EIVA this season.

“I think the two representatives from the Big West seem to be playing really good volleyball,” Speraw said. “I’ve been really impressed with both of them. And Penn State, the last time we played them, they took us five. So I have a ton of respect for everybody. And Grand Canyon and Ohio State, we lost to them earlier in the year. This is just a group of teams where everyone’s got a shot.”

The winners advance to the semifinals Thursday, May 2, and the championship match is Saturday, May 4.

“It’s always nice to play in the championship and it’s always nice to win your way into the championship throug the AQ,” said Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe, who team won it all in 2018 and 2019 and was the favorite in 2020 when the season was cancled. Long Beach lost in the 2022 final to Hawai’i. 

“We’ve had, obviously, a very, very good year.”

The 4-5 battle should be something else featuring two of the more dynamic offensive stars in UCI’s Hilir Henno, who leads the nation with 520 kills, and Penn State’s John Kerr, who is fourth with 406.

“Any time you can face a team with Henno in it, your defense and your block are going to be tested,” said 30th-year Penn State coach Mark Pavlik, whose Nittany Lions won the 2008 title, beating UCI in the final. “You know you’re going to battle with your serve receive because he’s gonna pull out every trick in his bag.

“And the other thing if you just worry about Henno, the rest of the team will kill you.”

The 3-6 could be equally competitive. GCU is coming off that big victory Saturday over UCLA, while Ohio State righted itself down the stretch and is playing extremely well.

The NCAA committee is chaired by MIVA commissioner Tim O’Brien, who noted how many of the top teams beat each other this season. We document all the matchups among the teams in the field below.

The committee also includes Anthony Archbald, associate athletic director at Princeton, Fairleigh Dickinson coach Karl France, SIAC commissioner Anthony Holloman, and UC Irvine AD Paula Smith.

“The seedings were closer than you may think,” O’Brien said. “In the actual nitty-gritty comparisons where you really dig into the numbers we feel like we got it right.”

1. UCLA (24-5) 

The Bruins had won 12 in a row before losing to GCU. They went 11-1 in the MPSF regular season and played as tough a non-conference schedule as could be imagined. 

UCLA has the experience of winning it all, of course, and is loaded, starting with MPSF player of the year Merrick McHenry, a high-flying 6-foot-7 middle from Bedford, Texas, who hit .570 this season. He has 190 kills and 100 blocks, seven solo, and 36 aces. Ethan Champlin, a 6-3 senior from Oceanside, California,has a team-best 228 kills (2.28/set) and a team-high 146 digs. Cooper Robinson, a 6-7 sophomore from Pacific Palisades, has 221 kills (2.63/set) and 33 aces. Sophomore setter Andrew Rowan, a 6-6 product of Trabuco Canyon, California, who led his team to the title as a freshman, averaged 10.15 assists, has 37 aces, 49 kills while hitting .432, and is second in digs with 122.

Against the field: The Bruins opened their season January 4 with a sweep of Fort Valley State, lost in five to Ohio State in Austin on January 19, swept Penn State the next day, beat UCI in five on January 31 and then beat the Anteaters in four two days later, and split with Long Beach State the next week, losing in four at Long Beach before winning in four the next night. On March 8 at USC, UCLA beat Penn State in five and two days later swept Ohio State. The Bruins beat Grand Canyon on back-to-back MPSF nights, sweeping on April 5 and then winning in five. 

2. Long Beach (19-10)

Knipe said when his team got swept at UC Irvine on April 12, it was a turning point. The Beach came back and swept UCI the next day at home to end the regular season.

Long Beach has a core group of experienced, talented seniors, including setter Aidan Knipe, the coach’s son. He’s one of the best at his position, averaging 10.15 assists/set, and Mason Briggs, is regarded by many as the top libero in the nation. He averages 2.24 digs/set. Spanaird Simon Torwie, the 6-9 middle, has 112 blocks, 14 solo, and averages 1.32 kills/set and hits .417 to go with 28 aces. And classmate Clarke Godbold, a 6-5 product of San Pedro, California, has 225 kills (3.31/set).

Sotiris Siapainis, a 6-3 junior from Cyprus, leads with 269 kills, 3.16/set, and had 27 aces. Skyler Varga, a 6-7 opposite from Saskatchewan, has 242 kills (2.92/set) and a team-best 30 aces.

Against the field: Long Beach split with UCLA eaerly, winning in four at home on February 9 before losing in four in Los Angeles the next day. The Beach beat visiting Penn State in four on March 1 before the aforementioned back-to-back matches with UC Irvine. Long Beach beat the Anteaters again in four on Saturday.

3. Grand Canyon (25-4)

The Lopes, who made the field for the first time last year, have had their best season yet. Their only MPSF losses were to UCLA and they’ve won five in a row since.

GCU has plenty of weapons, but it all starts with Camden Gianni and Jackson Hickman. Gianni, a 6-5 senior from Carlsbad, California, leads with 339 kills (3.53/set), has 55 aces, and 60 blocks. Hickman, a 6-4 product of Phoenix, has 299 kills (2.93/set) and is third on the team with 141 digs. Cameron Thorne, a 6-4 sophomore middle from Hollywood, Florida — who has a team-high 138 blocks, 17 solo, has 199 kills and Rico Wardlow, a 6-7 middle from Bolingbrook, Illinois, has 178.

Setter Nicholas Slight, a junior from Storm Lake, Iowa, has had a tremendous season for ninth-year coach Matt Werle, averaging 10.50 assists to go with 45 blocks.

Against the field: GCU lost to UC Irvine in five in Hawai’i on March 7, dropped back-to-back matches to UCLA near the end of the regular season, and then beat the Bruins in five on Saturday.

4. UC Irvine (19-10)

Coach David Kniffin’s squad has all the pieces to turn the tournament on its ear after coming up with some huge victories and taking the top teams to the limit.

UCI has the top offensive weapon in the nation in Hilir Henno, who has 520 kills — his closest teammate, Maxim Grigoriev has 240 — while hitting .382. He averages 4.77 kills a set. Henno, a 6-8 junior from France, has a team-best 47 aces, is second on the team with 152 digs and had 58 blocks, nine solo. Grigoriev, a 6-4 sophomore from Walnut Creek, California, averages 2.20 kills/set, has 34 aces, 110 digs and 97 blocks, 11 solo. Three other players are right up there. William D’Arcy and Connor Campbell have 181 kills each and Nolan Flexen has 173. Campbell lead with 108 blocks, nine solo. Setter Brett Sheward has had a fabulous season, averaging 10.58 assists, and has 61 blocks and 190 digs. 

Against the field: The Anteaters lost in five to UCLA on January 31 and to the Bruins in four two days later, they beat Grand Canyon in five on March 7, and split with Long Beach State to end the regular season, sweeping at home before getting swept at the Pyramid. UCI then lost to Long Beach again, this time in four, in the Big West final. 

5. Penn State (23-6)

The Nittany Lions won the EIVA for 34th time. Penn State went 10-0 in the EIVA regular season before beating Harvard and then George Mason in the final.

Penn State, which led the EIVA in nearly every statistical category, has an explosive offense led by John Kerr. The 6-6 graduate-student opposite from Derry, Pennsylvania, has 406 kills (3.94/set), 28 aces and 51 blocks. High-flying middle Toby Ezeonu, a 6-7 middle from North Brunswick, New Jersey, has 251 kills (2.30/set) while hitting a remarkable.498 to go with 36 aces and 92 blocks, 17 solo. Owen Rose, a 6-7 middle from New York, who leads in blocks with 97, 12 solo, has 183 kills.

Against the field: Penn State got swept by UCLA in Austin on January 20, beat Ohio State in back-to-back matches in late January, lost in four at Long Beach State on March 1, and then lost in five at UCLA on March 8.

6. Ohio State (22-8)

The Buckeyes, who have won their last five, had a tough patch late in the season, going 1-4 in the first half of March. But Ohio State finished strong and won all three of its MIVA Tournament matches in four, beating Lewis, Loyola Chicago and then Lindenwod. It marked the 19th time Ohio State, which also won last year, won the MIVA title.

Fourth-year coach Kevin Burch’s program is headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the 23rd time. Ohio State won it all in 2016 and 2017.

The Buckeyes lead the nation in kills, starting with Jacob Pasteur, a 6-4 outside from Westminster, Maryland, who has 379 kills (3.54/set) while hitting .336 to go with an incredible NCAA-leading 61 aces. Shane Wetzel, a 6-7 sophomore from Lake Mary, Florida, has 332 kills, 23 aces and 60 blocks. Justin Howard, a 6-6 sophomore from Pacific Palisades, California, has 172 kills and leads with 76 blocks. 

Against the field: Ohio State beat UCLA in five on January 19 in Austin, lost to Penn State in four on January 25 and then in five two days later, and was swept at UCLA on March 10.

7. Belmont Abbey (21-4)

The Crusaders went 13-1 during the Conference Carolinas regular season. Belmont Abbey, which has won nine matches in a row, swept Mount Olive in the conference semifinals and beat North Greenville in the final 25-21, 25-20, 21-25, 25-17. 

Third-year coach Derek Sullivan had back-to-back 15-16 seasons in his first two years at the helm after two years as an assistant. His team led Conference Carolinas in opponent hitting percentage (.198) and was second in hitting percentage (.279). Zach Puentes, a 6-2 freshman outside from Wellington, Florida, was second in kills (315, 3.46/set) and Matthew Staskunas, a 6-5 junior from New Berlin, Wisconsin, was third (296, 3.22/set). Staskunas tied for the league lead in aces with 38 and Jibriel Elhaddad, a 6-7 freshman from Jupiter, Florida, led in blocks with 109 (1.30/set). 

Against the field: The Crusaders did not play any of the other NCAA teams. 

Belmont Abbey is located in Belmont, North Carolina, a western suburn of Charlotte. 

8. Fort Valley State (17-8) 

The Wildcats, who have won six in a row, are coming off sweeps of Kentucky State and Central State to win the SIAC’s first automatic NCAA bid. 

Coach Larry Wrather, whose program is in its third year, finished 8-15 in 2022 and 8-20 in 2023.  Fort Valley finished 10-0 in the SIAC and its non-conference schedule included getting swept at UCLA in the second match of the season on January 4.

Jaxon Hicks, a 6-3 junior from Beach Park. Illinois leads in kills with 203 (3.32/set) and Isaiah Fedd, a 6-3 sophomore from Apopka, Florida, has 193 (3.45/set) while hitting .347 and leading in aces with 37.

Against the field: The Wildcats got swept by UCLA in early January.

Fort Valley State is located in Fort Valley, Georgia, about 29 miles southwest of Macon.

Click here for the NCAA bracket.


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