Penn State’s Rec Hall is once again the center of the volleyball world, at least for the week.
With the Men’s National Collegiate Championships taking over the building, the nation’s best talent will be on display. Long Beach State faces Brigham Young at 6 p.m. Thursday, and Ohio State meets UCLA at about 8 p.m.
All four teams have power and have looked like a title contender — with each spending time at No. 1 in the country this season in the national coaches’ poll.
All also are loaded with talent and potential, with players like Long Beach State’s T.J. DeFalco and BYU’s Ben Patch, who have already spent time with the U.S. national program.
Two coaches who are a pretty fair judge of talent will be in the building Thursday night as well. Long Beach State is coached by Alan Knipe, who guided the U.S. to the 2012 Olympics, while UCLA is led by John Speraw, the current U.S. coach who is prepping for Rio de Janiero, Brazil, this summer.
Both are happy with the state of the men’s game in the U.S., and see a lot of potential for things to get better. They were glad to see the NCAA add a national championship tournament at the Division III level, and the addition of Conference Carolinas with Division II teams. They also like that the NCAA expanded the men’s championship tournament to six teams a few years ago, though eight would be even better.
The success of the college game has helped build the U.S. into a gold-medal contender this summer.
“From a top-end talent perspective, I think we’ve done remarkably well,” Speraw said Wednesday at a session previewing this week’s tournament. “I think this quad has been a very pleasant surprise to see some of the youth and the impact they’ve had, and to be as successful as they’ve (been) at that level.”
The feeder system is teaching the game properly to 15-year-olds, not to mention college kids.
“There’s so many coaches on the collegiate side,” Knipe said, “that are also part of USA volleyball that are helping in the summers to grow this thing. It’s incredibly impressive what we’re able to do in men’s volleyball. When you think about it we’re one of the only teams that are in a world class situation where we can medal at the Olympic games that doesn’t have this huge pool to pull from of younger players and we definitely don’t have our own pro league.”
What all the coaches would love to see is a stronger voice with the NCAA’s committees. The four current conferences do not pull the weight that the Big Ten and Pac-12 do, although the Big West may create a conference.
“There’s no doubt those are some of the things that have held us back,” Knipe said, “and there’s some obvious reasons why it’s hard from some men’s sports to grow.”
Ohio State coach Pete Hanson said he was having a conversation earlier Wednesday while walking through downtown State College about how schools like Wisconsin and Indiana also had teams “back in the dark ages when I was playing.
“Where would things be if those two folks had stayed in it? And maybe we’d have gotten a couple more to be involved. It makes perfect sense for me for some of those universities that maybe aren’t the Ohio States of the world, in terms of their football program, or something like that, to add those types of sports.”
Men’s volleyball also provides a chance for the “little guy” to have a chance at a national championship. Over the past dozen years, schools like Loyola (Chicago), California-Irvine and Pepperdine have won titles and other smaller schools have added the sport.
“Its not a budget-breaking sport to add for an athletic department and for a lot of schools it’s an opportunity that you can get into a national championship hunt fairly fast and fairly inexpensive,” Knipe said.
You again? (Part 1)
If anyone has a home court advantage this week, it might be Ohio State. The Buckeyes are visiting Rec Hall for a third time this year, with Thursday bringing their fifth match in the building.
“Aside from St. John (Arena in Columbus) I think this is my second-favorite gym to play in,” said the Buckeyes’ Miles Johnson. “Coming back here it’s always pretty comfortable, and gives, me personally, but I know our team, a pretty good confidence-booster coming here.”
Hanson has even more fond memories of the place, guiding the team to the 2011 national title the last time Penn State hosted the tournament. His team beat the Nittany Lions in the semifinals, and they had strong support for the finals against California-Santa Barbara. He’s hoping for the same support Thursday.
“The crowd kind of became pro-Ohio State because of maybe the Big Ten connection or maybe they just adopted us as their second son since we are here so often,” Hanson said. “I’d like to think we’re going to have a pretty favorable crowd.”
The Buckeyes aren’t the only ones with fond memories of Penn State’s arena. UCLA’s previous national title also came in Rec Hall, when it beat the Nittany Lions in 2006.
You again? (Part 2)
Both semifinal contests are rematches. UCLA beat Ohio State — in Rec Hall — in early January. BYU and Long Beach State split their matches in Provo, Utah, also in January.
You again? (Part 3)
BYU coach Shawn Olmstead should look familiar to Penn State volleyball fans. He led the Cougars’ women’s team to the 2014 national championship match before they lost to the Nittany Lions.
Having that experience gives him a little perspective on how to handle the championship week.
“Right now it is very similar, because it is just the day before,” Olmstead said. “The excitement, the energy and all of the wonderful things that go along with the championship experience are all really familiar. We as a staff have tried our best to mentor these guys and talk them through the emotions and (the) pushes and pulls of this experience.”
One thing that is different for Olmstead is his appearance. He sported a mustache at the NCAA title match in 2014. He said it was the product of having a week off between the regular season and the start of the tournament, and he showed up with the growth of facial hair to practice surprising his players.
“The girls just thought it was the funniest thing ever,” he said. “And so I think nobody believed I would do it through the first round of the tournament, or the second, and then it just went from there. There was no intention to it, but it was fun and forever those pictures with that team that made a great run, I’ll have a creepy mustache.”
Ohio State may have the familiarity and shortest travel time, but there also should be a strong rooting section for UCLA, or at least the guy who wears No. 7. Chambersburg’s Mitch Stahl is a starting middle hitter, and he will have quite a few supporters making the drive of just over two hours north to State College.
“I have a lot of family coming up tomorrow,” Stahl said. “Some friends have texted me, told me they’re going to come. It’s something I try not to think about a whole lot, because that’s just outside noise that you can’t really pay attention to. When you’re in the final four you have to focus on the task at hand.”