COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — UCLA has won the last two national titles in men’s volleyball, but the Bruins enter Thursday night’s semifinals of this year’s championship as only the third seed in the four-team field.
“It’s a lot easier when you have players who’ve been there,” Bruins coach Al Scates said. “If you win, it becomes easier to win it the next time.”
Scates knows, considering his teams have won 16 national championships — matching Houston men’s golf coach Dave Williams for the most NCAA titles by a college coach. Five members of last year’s championship team are back for the Bruins.
UCLA (23-4) enters the semifinals as an at-large choice after losing to top-seeded Stanford (25-3) in three games in last week’s Mountain Sports Federation championship.
“A loss at the end of the season is not a bad thing,” said Scates, who is 43-4 in NCAA tournament play and 917-142 overall. “We played them straight up, but they beat us handily. I think we’ll be a little more focused when we play them again.”
Before that can happen, Stanford takes on fourth-seeded Ball State (27-7) in the semifinals with UCLA meeting second-seeded Penn State (29-1) in the second match. The winners square off Saturday.
Normally, UCLA would be considered a lopsided favorite. But Penn State and Stanford have both beaten the Bruins this season, adding an air of uncertainty to the 28th annual championship.
But that doesn’t mean the Bruins aren’t respected.
“We might be the No. 1 seed, but they have to be the favorite,” Stanford outside hitter Matt Fuerbringer said. “Until we knock them off when it counts, that’s the way it is. I would never count UCLA out, but I’m not counting us out either.”
Stanford coach Ruben Nieves said his team started out well and “it kind of snowballed” last week in a 15-11, 15-2, 15-10 victory over UCLA.
“I think we’re the favorite,” Nieves said. “If the other team plays well and we play well, I think we’ll win. I understand what Matt’s saying, but I think we’re the team to beat.”
The Cardinal has never won an NCAA volleyball title, losing in the championship game in its only previous appearances in 1989 and 1992.
Penn State, riding a school-record 24-match winning streak, features senior outside hitter Ivan Contreras, selected as the player of the year by the coaches association. Contreras, from Tampico, Mexico, became the first player from a non-West Coast school to win the award.
“Hopefully, I’ll be able to prove that,” he said.
One of the Lions’ other top players, swing hitter Jason Kepner, has a broken pinky finger on his right hand that had to be set with metal pins. He will likely try to play with a plastic cast and elastic bandage wrapped around his hand, but he has been in pain during the team’s workouts this week.
“It’s Jason’s last weekend in a Penn State uniform. What’s a pinky? It’ll grow back,” coach Mark Pavlik joked.
Ball State is winless in 13 first-round NCAA tournament matches. But coach Don Shondell said just about anything can happen when there is not a dominant team.
“I really think in all the years I’ve been coming to the tournament, this year the teams are the most even,” he said.
U loses in semifinals
Minnesota’s men’s club volleyball team placed third in the National Intramural Recreation Sports Association tournament this spring to end a successful season.
The NIRSA tournament includes the top 48 teams in the country that are not sanctioned by their respective universities. The list is mostly club teams but includes some National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics squads.
The University team lost to eventual champion Sacramento State in the tournament semifinals. Minnesota ended its season ranked No. 5 in the nation with an unofficial record of 46-7.
Minnesota was 7-0 in play against Big Ten teams and boasted two All-Americans — first-teamer Pat Zenk and second-teamer Chris Rohde.