Leading up to the NCAA Tournament matches, VolleyMob is sitting down for a brief conversation with the head coach of each of the seven remaining teams for a quick update on their season, their personnel and their outlook heading into the final matches of 2018.
Harvard coach Brian Baise has his Crimson team in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history and with its first conference title since 2009.
To find out what has the ninth-year coach and the surprise winners of the EIVA Tournament rolling into Tuesday’s match with UCLA, VolleyMob sat down with Coach Baise to talk about his 13-13 squad, its historical season and what’s lies ahead.
This season has been a roller coaster ride for your team. When things started 1-8, did you ever imagine that your team would be still have a shot at playing in the NCAA Tournament?
That is a good question. I certainly did not rule it out because I knew we had the capability to play some good volleyball and to compete really well. We had a number of injuries early and I knew when everyone was back that we would hopefully make some progress and win some games. You never know how far you can go, whether that be a playoff team in the EIVA or a finalist or a champion like we were. But I was hopeful. I knew we had a team that complemented each other really well and liked to compete and liked to train and any time you have that, you have a shot even when you are 1-8.
At 5-11, something clicked and you won six straight. What changed?
Brad Gretsch came back. His first match back was our match at Princeton. He is a big part of our team and especially our offense. But, he is a great blocker too and he is a senior. So, he came back for that match and that is really when we turned it around. I think the team emotionally, psychologically and physically on the court, we felt like we could start playing some good volleyball and that proved to be the case. And a little bit of it was just settling in and figuring out what our strengths were and continuing to work on our weaknesses, but getting Brad back was a big part of it.
Historically and this season, what does earning this first NCAA Tournament berth mean to your program?
An awful lot. We have been working really hard for a long time. I have been here 10 years and our goal was first to be competitive in our league and we have been doing that for a number of years. We have been a playoff team more often than not the last six years and been to the finals once, but we hadn’t really broken through. To have that semifinal win over Penn State and then to go up against a really good Princeton team, who is obviously a great rival of ours, and to have a good match against them in the finals, it meant a lot. It always feels good to have a lot of hard work pay off. A lot of guys have come through here and believed in the program and believed we could do it, but you never know until it actually happens. So, it is certainly very satisfying. Our alumni are very excited, the department is very excited, it has been a lot of fun in that regard.
The EIVA Tournament title was the Crimson’s first and the first conference title since taking the Ivy League tournament title in 2001. After being so close in the last few years, does it feel good to finally get the monkey off your back and get the title next to your name?
It sure does. I have the trophy sitting right here and Harvard will be inscribed on it soon. It puts us in some really good company. Some great teams and great programs have won the EIVA, so to have our name among that list is great. So, we are certainly celebrating that but at the same time, we have a really big match next Tuesday. We are not focused on what we have done the last week, but what we have left to do.
What was the difference for you in those two big EIVA Tournament wins – the upset of Penn State and the win over your rival Princeton? Does that give you some momentum heading into the tournament?
We have three seniors on the floor and that makes a big difference, with their leadership and experience. I think that has been the biggest difference for us this year. Last year I think we lost eight of 10 five-set matches, and this year I think we have won almost all of our five-set matches and I attribute that certainly to those guys and their composure and their confidence and desire to win in their last year.
Penn State is such a tough program and such a good team. We have beaten them a couple of times over the years, but we haven’t had much luck against them in the playoffs. So, I think after that semifinal match, we finally knew that we could do it. Obviously we had to show up for the finals too and our guys did. I have to say that they have competed in every match now for many, many weekends and that has been a lot of fun to watch and be a part of.
This isn’t your team’s first trip to the west coast in 2018. Even though that trip wasn’t as successful as you had hoped, but having made the trek out there and played in some of those tough environments, does that prepare you a bit for this one?
I hope so. I guess we will find out. Certainly having been there before this season – I think we have been out there every year this group has been here because a number of our guys are from the area. Having played particularly at USC where they play in a big arena not too different from Pauley Pavilion will prove helpful to us. And I think we competed well two of those matches, not the first one against Northridge, so I think that gives us a little bit of confidence that we can do it. We are a much better team than we were then, which I think will help. I am sure UCLA is too. But having been there and seen those teams and having been on the ground there will be helpful the second time.
You play at Penn State on a regular basis. How will that prepare you for the crowds you will see in Los Angeles? How do you prepare your team for that environment?
I think our seniors will play a big role in that. Whether it is Penn State or some West Coast schools, we have been in pressure environments before and we faced hostile crowds before, so I am hoping we will be ready for it. We have never been in the NCAAs before so it will obviously be a bigger stage and a different experience, but that is why will get there a couple days early and get two practices in and hopefully be settled and confident and comfortable.
Let’s talk a little scouting. What do you know about UCLA and how do you match up with them?
We have been watching a lot film this week and trying to figure out who they are and what they like to do. Needless to say, they are a really good team. They play all parts of the game well. There is a lot of service pressure. They have a great setter. They attack well from the middle and from the pins. That is why they are where they are and they have won the games they have won this year.
I think we need to have a good night serving against them. If they are putting it on their setter’s head all night, they are a tough team for any team to stop. So, we are putting a lot of focus on that. I think if we can move the ball around on our side and keep them guessing a little bit and put some pressure on them, you never know what could happen.
How have your prepared your team during this week off from competition since the selection show?
There are pros and cons to that. Certainly it was a gift to head straight to UCLA, but at the same time we have been in a rhythm of playing every weekend, so that rhythm has changed. We have taken a little bit of time off and had a couple of rest days. It has been a long season. Most importantly for us is that we are fresh mentally and physically, but still sharp and ready to compete. Again, we have been watching our opponent a lot and trying to set up some situations in practice that we feel we will see next Tuesday. And we watched our matches from last weekend and are trying to fine tune a few things we have been working on but still need to improve at.
We are really trying not to talk about the fact that this is an NCAA Tournament game too much or that we are going up against a really good team. We have talked about having confidence in what we have done and the team that we know we are.
Your team ranks sixth nationally in digs per set (9.79) led by Chase Howard’s 2.61 digs per set (7th nationally). Is your defense what has kept you in matches this season?
Yes. I think it is a big part of it, especially in the last month we have been a harder team to score against and that makes a big difference. A lot of balls coming over on our side, we have been getting better at getting transition kills in those situations and not giving the ball back to the opponent as much. We try not to and I think we have been pretty good about not making errors in those situations. I think anytime you can make the other team swing two or three times to earn a point, you become a harder to beat. So, I think Chase and the other guys have worked really hard and we are at our best when we are really tenacious back there and pretty determined not to let balls go down easily. So I definitely think that has been a difference for us.
Offensively you mentioned senior middle/outside Brad Gretsch coming back and he leads the way with 3.48 kills per set, but you have a handful of other guys in sophomore outside Erik Johnson (2.12), senior outside Jack Heavy (2.08), senior middle Riley Moore (1.70) and even junior middle Trevor Dow (1.43) that follow with nearly two kills per set. What does having all of those options bring to your team and how has it beneficial having that many guys involved?
Obviously Brad makes a huge difference for us. He is our go-to guy and he gets us out of a lot of jams. He is really good when we are out of system and we rely on him a lot. But, I think that we are not at our best when we are just setting one guy. I think when we are playing our best volleyball, we are passing well… our middles – Riley hits for a really high percentage and in the EIVA finals Trevor hit .700 or .800… We have two setters and we need those guys to contribute, Mark Kostich in particular has been really good for us on the right side. Matt Ctvrtlik also does a ton of thing for us.
So, I think that in order to compete with a team like UCLA, we need to be scoring at every position and be pretty evenly distributed.
You do play a unique two-setter system. What do each of them bring to the table? Senior setter Marko Kostich (1.50 kills, 36 aces, 1.64 digs and 5.27 assists per set) and fellow setter Matthew Ctvrtlik seem to do a little bit of everything.
They do. They are both all-around volleyball players. They play all parts of the game really well. They are two of our best servers and two of our better blockers. They defend really well. They communicate great. Both are incredibly competitive guys and want to win as much as or more than anyone else and are great under pressure. So, when you have two guys like that, this was the one way we could get them both out there.
It took us a while. We started this the middle of last year and it took us a while to figure out how to take advantage of this system, and there are some advantages. It has started to work well for us and I think part of the turnaround we saw this year was us just getting better at that system and those two guys figure it out. Neither one had really grown up hitting; they both were 5-1 setters throughout their careers, so their learning curve was really steep. They have worked really hard and have gotten much better at it, and as soon as that happened, we could score on that right side too and things turned around for us a little bit.
What does your team need to shore up or say consistent with to get past UCLA on Tuesday?
I did mention our serving, so, being a reasonably good serving team, I think we can put some pressure on their passers. We work a lot on defending when they are out of system and have to set their pins. I am confident in those situations that we have become a tougher team to beat. Like I said, if they are able to set every option, and set the quicks and then the bick, they are awfully good. They are going to bring a lot of service pressure – and I know this is what everyone says in the men’s game, so it is no surprise. Our passers have to be really good and then I think we have to be confident on that stage and that will be a challenge as well. I would point to our service game as maybe the first factor as to whether or not we will be in this match and compete for this match.
If things don’t work out how you hope on Tuesday, will this still have been a successful season for Harvard men’s volleyball?
Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of things to be proud of beyond getting our first EIVA championship, which will certainly be remembered for a long time. There will be a banner in our gym where there has never been one before. Like all coaches this time of year, you look back to where you started in the fall and in those first matches in January. To still be playing at this point and to have our guys still competing like they are and still training like they are in practice and as determined as they are four months later is a testament to them and as a coach is very rewarding. Even separate from this match, there is a lot to be proud of and remember from this year.