Brendan Yu | Off the Block special contributor
The NCAA Tournament first round on Tuesday in the Pauley Pavilion featured a slugfest between two heavyweights in the world of men’s volleyball – UC Irvine and Ohio State – whom together have combined for seven of the last 10 national championships. But while the Anteaters held more titles than the Buckeyes (4-3), the recent success of both programs couldn’t have been more different.
The Buckeyes are fresh off of a back-to-back championships, while the Anteaters were competing in their first NCAA Tournament since 2015.
That familiarity on the big stage may have been the difference for Ohio State, as it was the battle-hardened Buckeyes (25-5) that stood tall over the Anteaters (21-10) in a 25-19, 22-25, 25-23, 22-25, 16-14 win.
“It clearly helped guys like [Nicolas Szerszen] and [Maxime Hervoir] and [Blake Leeson] who did that the last couple years. But [Jake Hanes] and [Aaron Samarin] and [Sanil Thomas] and [Nick Laffin] weren’t on the court the last couple years for us. So we’ve got some young guys that are playing, too,” Ohio State coach Pete Hanson said. “But I think, again, it’s a comforting thought knowing that you’ve got a First-Team All-American that kind of anchors your team and can get you out of trouble at the right times and things like that. That’s helped our guys. We’ve seen growth by all of those new guys, and they’ve just kind of bought into what’s been established the last couple years. And certainly, I’m not going to speak for Jake, but I’m sure Jake is feeling like ‘Hey, I don’t want to disappoint this guy next to me, so I’ve got to do some things.’ It kind of goes back and forth like that and that’s what has developed culturally within the program the last few years. Credit that to those guys that were there the last couple years.”
While the All-American Szerszen turned in yet another stellar performance for the Buckeyes with a match-high 22 kills on a .439, the most imposing presence for Ohio State was Hanes. On top of having 22 kills of his own, Hanes unloaded eight aces throughout the night – as a team, the Anteaters only tallied two.
Whenever the Anteaters looked to be on the verge of breaking away on a run, Hanes could be counted to step up and swing the momentum back in favor of the Buckeyes.
“Jake’s just been having a great season and getting better and better every match,” Hanson said. “He’s someone that competes really hard and has a will to win and a will to succeed that’s really, really exceptional. And I think that he wants to be a guy that can be counted on in those situations. And I believe he is that guy now. He’s proven that in some big matches and some playoff matches and certainly proved it tonight. It’s nice to know that we’ve got not only a guy like No. 9, but now we’ve got a guy like No. 16 that can get some big kills and do some big things when the moment’s the biggest. Hopefully that’s something we can continue to have going forward.”
Of the Buckeyes’ 82 points, Hanes, an Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. Freshman All-American selection, accounted for 30.0 of them while the next closest was Szerszen at 23.0.
“This is (the seniors) last year, so, I know [from] my senior year in high school, it sucks when you lose that last point,” Hanes said. “So I’m trying to fight as hard as I can for these guys who aren’t going to get another chance once this is over.”
The Anteaters were paced by junior opposite Karl Apfelbach, who pounded away 15 kills on a .257 hitting percentage. Sophomore middle attacker Scott Stadick added 12 kills on a .524 clip, while Matthew Younggren wasn’t far behind with 11 and zero errors on a team-best .688 hitting percentage.
“I’m really proud of the effort tonight and the work put together by these guys. Any time you come into a tournament, you want to demonstrate that you’re championship-relevant, and anytime you’re going deuce-game in the fifth, you’re making that statement,” UC Irvine coach David Kniffin said. “We play the game to win and it’s great to be on this stage, but this feels like unfinished business. I think there are some learning moments here for our guys. Obviously, I’ll go back and start mapping next year’s journey as soon as I get home. I’ll start thinking about what it’s going to take to get back on this stage, and the team is gonna change a little bit, but to have been on this stage three times in the last six years, to continue to be championship-relevant with Irvine in the changing landscape that is Division I athletics, is pretty special.”
The two teams took turns trading points early on in the first set, but the Buckeyes reeled off a six-point run that included three consecutive service aces by Hanes to take a 17-10 lead. The Anteaters stopped the bleeding off a pair of kills by Aaron Koubi and Younggren, but the deficit proved too big for them to overcome.
Hot off the heels of their win in the first set, the Buckeyes led throughout the majority of the second, with the Anteaters continuously knipping at their heels. At the 17-15 mark, freshman outside attacker Joel Schneidmiller sparked a 6-1 run for the Anteaters off a kill and a double block, and the Anteaters never looked back en route to evening the score. After hitting for .364 in the first set, the Buckeyes were held to a .094 clip in the second.
In the third stanza, both teams took turns going on three-point runs, with the Anteaters seemingly capturing the momentum off a pair of kills by Apfelbach to take a 16-15 lead. However, the Buckeyes remained poised and responded with an 8-3 run to take a definitive 23-19 lead. Despite what the run implied, the run was anything but lopsided as the Buckeyes repeatedly forced the Anteaters to take multiple swings on each point.
“I feel like we’re a pretty good defensive team when we put our mind to it. I think we knew we had to put our mind to it against a team like Irvine,” Hanson said. “We were just tryin to make sure that every point that they did earn that they truly earned. That we weren’t going to give any free points based on our lack of effort. Thought we did a good job of that tonight.”
With their backs against the wall, the Anteaters made a late game push that included two crowd-raising blocks to pull within 24-23, but the Buckeyes closed the set on a kill by Hanes to take a one-game lead into the fourth.
With their season on the line, the Anteaters came out swinging and closed out the set with a match-high .579 percent. Like the Anteaters in the previous set however, the Buckeyes did not go quietly, and after trailing 22-17, the Buckeyes capitalized off repeatedly unforced errors by the Anteaters and pulled within two at 23-21. However, the Buckeyes only managed one more point before the Younggren closed out the set to force a fifth set for the Anteaters.
In the decisive set, the Anteater jumped out to a 4-2 lead, but once again Hanes responded for the Buckeyes with a pair of kills to take a 5-4 lead. The Anteaters regained the lead off a kill by Apfelbach and two Buckeyes attack errors, and from there on out both teams took turns siding out. An Apfelbach kill put UC Irvine up 13-12, which promoted the Anteater faithful in attendance to rise up.
The Anteaters, though, whiffed the ensuing serve, and the Buckeyes capitalized with an ace to set-up a match-point at 14-13. The Anteaters survived the first point in an extended rally, but the Buckeyes set up another match-point with a double-block the ensuing point and Szerszen sealed the win with a cross court kill.
Ohio State now advance to face the No. 1 seed Long Beach State (26-1) on Thursday. While the Buckeyes may be the underdogs going into the VolleyFourl, that’s not a label they’re against. Afterall, the Buckeyes captured the 2016 championship despite being considered the tournament long shot.
“I kind of feel the same way as 2016,” Szerzen said. “This year, we had to play King and we had to play UC Irvine. So it’s like two decent teams that we had to pass through. We knew that we had our chances. We knew they had our chances. We just played our best. This was a really tight game. It could’ve gone either way and we just made a couple good plays at the right moment.
“Now we have nothing to lose, really. We’re playing No. 1 Long Beach. It’s really, just put everything in and play hard.”