Coaches have said over and over how important the serving game — and the ability to receive a serve — can be to volleyball.
Saturday night’s National Collegiate Championship match could not have served as a better example.
Ohio State had the nation’s best serving game, and Brigham Young wasn’t ready for it.
“They just didn’t handle it real well,” Buckeyes coach and AVCA National Coach of the Year Pete Hanson said. “Once (we) knew that, that was advantage to us. And then we just poured gas on the fire.”
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The Buckeyes enjoyed that cookout at Rec Hall, keeping the trophy in the eastern half of the U.S. as Ohio State stunned Brigham Young in a 32-30, 25-23, 25-18 sweep.
“None of us were expecting a match like that,” said Driss Guessous, who had 10 kills and three blocks. “I think we were expecting all five sets like the first set — 32-30 — I don’t know when it’s going to hit us, but when it does it’s going to be awesome.”
The Buckeyes (31-3), who closed the season winning 22 straight matches, earned their second national title, with both happening in Rec Hall. The other was in 2011. Fellow MIVA conference member Loyola (Chicago) had won the title the last two seasons.
“It’s up to each individual how they want to interpret it,” Hanson said. “Probably it depends on what part of the country you live in. But I can tell you from our perspective ... when we talk to anybody about our program, we talk about winning championships.”
Nicolas Szerszen and Miles Johnson again drove the offense for the champs. Johnson, named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, led everyone with 15 kills, while Szerszen added 10 kills and three key aces.
Overall, the Buckeyes had eight aces against two for the Cougars. Frequently, even when BYU got under the serve, the team was scrambling and unable to run an effective offense.
“The match really came down to serve-receive and serve, like it always does,” Cougars setter Leo Durkin said. “That’s just the nature of the game. Just a little more ownership on our side with the serve, maybe things would have gone a little different.”
Blake Leeson was impressive with 11 kills on 13 swings to hit .846 and Christy Blough gave out 44 assists for Ohio State.
The Cougars (27-4), looking for their first title since 2004, got a huge night from Brenden Sander with 14 kills on .500 hitting, and Ben Patch had 10 kills and seven digs. Durkin passed out 32 assists, and Jake Langlois and Price Jarman had five blocks apiece.
BYU, which was the top seed for the tournament and the preseason No. 1 team nationally, lost despite holding a 12.5-4 advantage in blocks.
The first set was a story of perseverence. The Buckeyes fought off seven set points for the Cougars before Szerszen stepped back to the service line, finally getting a set point on Ohio State’s side on a triple block, then Johnson ended it with a kill, tipping the ball over two BYU blockers.
“It was definitely stressful,” Johnson said. “Any time you have to fight off game point seven times, it’s a bit much to handle. Everyone just played really well together.”
Despite the setback and inability to cash in on the set points, the Cougars still had plenty of confidence.
“That was a really long set,” Sander said. “We had to really fight to try to win that. They just had a few good serves at the end that we couldn’t control.”
Ohio State trailed most of the second set before surging ahead late with the help of several Cougar errors. They were denied two set points before one more BYU error, a Sander serve into the net, ended it.
The Buckeyes took out a lot of the drama with a 6-0 run in the third to go up 13-7, riding the serving of AVCA National Player of the Year Szerszen for five of those points, three of them aces.
“Just the same as always,” Szerszen said of his confidence from behind the line. “No pressure.”
BYU chipped into the lead a little, but another burst got the margin to eight, and the Buckeyes coasted from there.
Notes: The match drew 2,745 fans, with a good contingent from both rooting sections. ... Ohio State will host next year’s tournament, and loses just one starter to graduation. BYU also had just one senior starter.
Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT