The Hawaii men’s volleyball team entered the national championships with the nation’s best block.
The Rainbow Warriors showed off that superiority Tuesday night at St. John Arena at Columbus, Ohio.
Putting up 17.5 blocks, including nine over the final two frames, No. 4 seed Hawaii stuffed No. 5 Penn State in five sets in the opening round of the Men’s National Collegiate Volleyball Championships.
“We got rattled,” Penn State coach Mark Pavlik told the media in Columbus. “Maybe the first time in a long time we’ve had this many guys making their first starts here, the stage at that time, I don’t know that it was too big but it started to get shaky.”
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The Warriors prevailed 23-25, 27-25, 17-25, 25-14, 15-4 and advance to meet top-seeded and tournament host Ohio State at 8 p.m. Thursday. The Buckeyes are the defending national champions.
All-American opposite Stijn van Tilburg had the biggest guns for the Warriors (27-5) with 20 kills to go with seven digs and six blocks. Brett Rosenmeier added 13 kills, nine digs and six blocks, Patrick Gasman led with seven blocks, Larry Tuileta picked up 10 digs and Jennings Franciskovic directed the offense with his 49 assists.
Cal Mende had a huge night with 18 kills for Penn State (21-11), although only three kills came in the final two sets, while Kevin Gear added 10 kills and six blocks. Aidan Albrecht had nine kills and Chris Nugent and Matt Callaway each had eight. Royce Clemens recorded nine digs and Luke Braswell had 43 assists as the offense hit .143.
“They kind of came out harder than we did and they didn’t let up,” Mende said of the match’s latter stages. “We couldn’t find the energy or couldn’t find the floor on any of our swings and it just caught up with us.”
Penn State hit .000 in the fourth set and minus-.190 in the fifth when the match was decided by all those Warrior blocks. That made it appropriate that the match was decided by one last stuff, with Gasman and Rosenmeier combining to stuff an Albrecht swing.
“Games 4 and 5, all of a sudden the shrapnel exploded,” Pavlik said. “There was no real consistency in our first contacts. We couldn’t run the offense that we were running.”
It was the 10th time this season Penn State had played a match to five sets, winning six of those matches, while Hawaii was 0-1 in its only five-setter this season.
The teams traded short runs in the first set, but Penn State had the most important one with the final two points. A Warrior service error preceded a block for Mende and Callaway to wrap it up. Penn State had a 4.5-2.5 blocking edge in the frame, and Mende had a huge contribution with seven kills.
It appeared the Lions were on the verge of a 2-0 lead in sets when they put on a 12-4 run to turn a five-point deficit into three-point lead. They were still up 23-20 before Hawaii rallied, fought off two set points and then took advantage of Penn State’s passing woes to put up a big block to wrap up the frame.
“At that point we started to – our (passing) platform started to get a little bit shaky,” Pavlik said. “… From that point on they did not try to score points with their serve because they knew if they handed us the ball, we might pass it somewhere within the confines of this gym, the skating rink and French Field House. I really don’t think they did much more than hand us the ball and say, ‘Go ahead, self destruct.’”
The next two sets were pictures of domination. Penn State stood tall in the third, hitting .474 with plenty of big swings for Mende. The Warriors then closed the fourth on a 9-2 run thanks to all those blocks to set up the final, decisive frame.
“I thought we had ‘em in the first three, and they managed to pull that one out,” Pavlik said. “More kudos to them. I thought Games 1, 2 and 3 we were right there. We were doing everything we wanted. Our first contacts kept us in there.”
With only Nugent and Callaway set to graduate, the Nittany Lions will bring back plenty of experience next season and a reminder of how close they were to making the national semifinals.
Said Mende: “Leaves us hungry for next year.”
In the night’s first match, Brigham Young swept Barton 25-19, 25-11, 25-15 behind Brenden Sander’s 11 kills and eight blocks and Ben Patch’s five aces. The Cougars dominated in serving with 10 total aces — the most in an NCAA match in the rally-scoring era — which also helped build an 18.5-2 blocking advantage. BYU will face No. 2 seed Long Beach State at 6 p.m. Thursday.