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.
Earlier in the season, we chatted with Ohio State coach Pete Hanson and talked all things volleyball, his team, their goal of a three-peat and more. On Tuesday, we circled back to see how things had progressed throughout the season and to check in about his team’s outlook going into Thursday’s play-in game with King volleyball.
The Buckeyes are led by a balanced attack of senior outside hitter Nicolas Szerszen (3.69 kills per set, .376 hiting %, 54 aces, 2.19 digs per set), senior outside hitter Maxime Hervoir (3.35 kps, .327 hitting %, 1.52 dps, 23 aces) and redshirt freshman opposite Jake Hanes (3.56 kps, .264 hitting %, 36 aces, 1.26 dps). Junior setter Sanil Thomas leads the nation in assists per set (11.17) and has the team hitting at a .340 clip, with six of his eight hitters boasting a .250 or better clip and the other two checking at nearly .240.
As a team, Ohio State ranks in the top five nationally in five categories: kills per set (2nd, 13.30), assists per set (2nd, 12.30), hitting percentage (3rd, .340), aces per set (4th, 1.82) and opponent hitting percentage (5th, .203). The Buckeyes also rank 14th in digs per set (9.50).
If the Buckeyes can win the play-in match and pick up three more wins to claim the NCAA title and pull of a three-peat, they would be the first team to claim three-straight men’s volleyball titles since UCLA won four in a row from 1981 to 1984. (The Bruins also notched three-peats from 1970-72 and 1974-76.)
Coach Hanson didn’t pull any punches discussing the future of the sport, how his team is handling the play-in match, and if the hope of the three-peat is still alive.
Your team made the NCAA Tournament and won the MIVA regular season and conference tournament titles. What are your thoughts on the season thus far, with a new season set to begin on Thursday?
Obviously we are happy to have gotten through the MIVA. It was a challenging year. I think the top four teams along with a couple others were very competitive this year. You just look at how we all ended up. Lindenwood had five matches that went five sets and finally they were able to knock off one of the big dogs at the end of the year and that was the match with Loyola. But, I think the conference is getting better top to bottom and we were lucky enough to have home court advantage and I think that is huge. If you dig down into the results, you will see that most everybody who had multiple losses on their resume, those probably came on the road. It was a big thing to be able to have the tournament here in St. John Arena for those three nights and finally it paid off for us. That was something we talked about at the beginning of the year and the guys were able to get ’er done.
Now you get to carry that home court into maybe what some would say is a surprise, in the play-in game. Do you view it as another opportunity to get a leg up and start things off? How do you deal with that with your team?
That is how we are going to frame it with the guys. You could spin it a number of different ways if you wanted to. You could potentially be upset about it, but that doesn’t do any good. So, hey, let’s embrace it as this is a chance to play another match that maybe gets us another opportunity to get some of our younger guys into an NCAA Tournament match and get some of their jitters out. We are fairly young team when you look at the fact that we lost four guys from the championship team from last year and we have put some new faces on the floor and it is a new experience for them. So yeah, being on our home court and in our building could be a good thing. That is how we are going to frame it and talk to our guys about it. Don’t feel upset about it, don’t feel slighted about it, just view it as an opportunity to play once more in front of your home fans and let them show their appreciation for what you have done. We’ll do the best we can and hopefully that will allow us to move on to Tuesday.
What do you know about King going into Thursday, having not had too much time to scout yet?
Obviously they have had a great season. I think to knock off the defending champion Barton, who was in the tournament last year is obviously a big accomplishment for them. I think they’ve got a couple of outstanding guys in Jeff Sprayberry and Kiel Bell, who have put up some really good numbers. Obviously we are going to do our due diligence like any team we play and dive deep into their stats and look at a lot of film and put together the same scouting report that we do on every team. This is an important match for us and we are not going to take any shortcuts I can assure you of that. We will get the guys as prepared as we can and hopefully we will have a good match on Thursday.
When you look at the NCAA Tournament field this year, the expanded number of teams obviously changed some things. And according to the NCAA committee, geography was a factor as well as to who went where. That seems to be a sticking point with fans, on how geography determines seeding. Do you have an opinion on that?
I think it is probably hard for fans to wrap their heads around. If they were to look at what might have been the possible seeds, how teams maybe were slotted and why is this matchup happening. Well, this matchup is happening because we are in a situation where we don’t have an eight team or 16 team or 64 team bracket where you can be more regionalized and work your way through. One of the criteria that they have is – in this scenario is we can have a university like King bus to Columbus and not have to pay for flights to go to Boston or Los Angeles or something like that. This just so happened to be the year that we got through our tournament and they got through their tournament and that is how it worked out.
It is kind of one of those things where we – being men’s volleyball – are going to have to deal with some of this issues and we hopefully continue to grow this tournament and get more teams in the national tournament as we go forward. I think people sometimes lose sight of the fact that we want to have more teams in, but we can’t always have it the way we want it as coaches. There are some other factors that have to be considered. It could have been a different scenario if Barton had won. Quite frankly, it could have been something where the two West coast teams play and they are obviously higher seeded teams than we are. Again, that is a geographic consideration. Again, it is just something that we are going to have to work through and hopefully everybody is open-minded about it and knows that if we can keep pushing to a bigger tournament bracket, maybe some of these things will go by the wayside in the future.
Not to get too far ahead, but you get to play UC Irvine if you win, instead of playing UCLA on its home court, does that bode well for you or do you even think about it?
I don’t necessarily worry about it. Again, let’s not get too far out in front of our skis in terms of looking at the possible matchups and blah blah blah. If we had been put on the UCLA side, we were out there in January and played UCLA on their home court in that tournament and it went to five and we lost 16-14 in the fifth. That is one of the reasons we did that event and went out there and got a chance to play UCLA and learned what that environment is like. If that would have happened, we would have said, ok, we have had that opportunity before and we know what this is like, but now we will be playing a different team on kind of a neutral site setting, although their home crowd will be there because they are from Los Angeles if we get there.
But no, I don’t put too much worry or bother into looking down the road. You are going to have to beat three good teams, or four, to win the damn thing, so let’s line them up and play them. Last man standing gets to put on the ring. That is kind of how we view it.
Let’s talk a little bit about your team. The seniors you have in Nicolas Szerszen and Maxime Hervoir came through for you in a big way as expected but were there any surprises along the way in terms of people that have stepped up to get you to where you are?
I don’t know if they would be surprises, but we knew that there were going to be some growing pains. We knew that whoever replaced Miles Johnson at the opposite position was going to have to grow into that position and hopefully not try to be what Miles was last year, which was a guy that got you 3.5 kills per game and maybe an ace and a half per set and maybe a few blocks and really helped balance the floor to take pressure off those other guys. That is a lot to get accomplished out of a new guy, whether it was Jake Hanes as a redshirt freshman or someone else as a true freshman or a different guy who hadn’t played that position. We knew that one was going to have to be a season-long progression with whoever it was and it has been Jake Hanes. You can go through the season statistics and see there are nights where he played really well and there were nights when he didn’t perform very well, but we stuck with him and we kind of saw the upside and saw that long term we think that he is going to be the guy, so you kind of just had to deal with the ups and downs of it.
Then you go to the next couple of positions where Sanil Thomas is replacing Christy Blough at setter, where he had been a four-year starter. And Sanil, even though he is third year guy in our program, this is his first year playing full time and running the offense. And Aaron Samarin, who has been with our program for four years, but this is the first time he has been the full-time libero and taking the place of an honorable mention All-American in (Gabriel) Gabe Domecus. So each of those guys just had to have some time to gain some confidence in what they are doing and their teammates to gain confidence in them. Those things don’t happen overnight as much as coaches want them to. You just have to keep grinding through the home matches, the away matches, the tough road trips and let those guys gain that ability to play and feel good about themselves.
Then you throw in a Nick Laffin, who is a fifth-year senior, but has only been middle blocking for the last 12-14 months. He had been an outside hitter when we recruited him and finally said hey, how am I going to get on the floor at Ohio State. And we said, how about being a middle blocker and he said okay and we have been teaching him those skills and he has done a pretty good job.
So, yeah, we are happy with how all of those guys have come along. We knew it was going to take time. We had some hiccups along the way, but they competed hard and they relied on guys like Szerszen and Max to cover their backs and they did and that has kind of helped us through.
When you look at your team, it was a different person each night that stepped up offensively. It seems like Sanil did a good job of passing the ball around and you still hit .340 as a team. Did you see that happening a couple of months ago?
I think Sanil is a pretty smart young man and he knows that ultimately you do have to be fairly balance and you do at times have to streak the hot guy. And he can understand who the hot guy is or hey, all of these guys are playing well, let’s really balance the ledger out, so to speak. I kind of thought that would happen, but it was good to see over time that he developed more and more confidence in Jake and didn’t just say, hey, let’s get it to the two French guys and hope for the best. But, he had the eye to go to back and forth between all of those guys and really keep teams a little bit off balance. I think that helped Jake. Early on, we told Sanil – give him opportunities where there was not a lot of pressure and then as we get into some of the tough situations, he will have the confidence to perform for you and I think Sanil understood that really, really well.
Moving forward, going into Thursday, obviously you are not going to reinvent the wheel, but are there things that you are going to have to shore up if you are going to win four matches and get another ring?
It is just going to have to be play consistent, and not try, as you said, to invent a new wheel and do anything we are not capable of doing. I think the teams that achieve the most and play the best right now are the teams that just stay true to themselves and do what they have done all year long and continue to do. We are pretty basic volleyball team. We try to serve it aggressively and we try to be good with our offense and be good defensively and I think those have been pretty good recipes.
So, hey guys, let’s not try to do anything more than you do. Jake – we don’t need you to serve 115 miles an hour, just hit it 85 miles an hour or whatever the case may be. Stay within yourself and play within the comfort level that you have achieved over the season and if you can stay in that zone for a long period of time, you are going to have pretty good success. Then, it is going to take hopefully take better efforts by the team across the net to knock you off and if they do that, credit to them. But if we are playing capable Ohio State volleyball, we think that we are in a good spot going forward. But, it starts on Thursday. We have to get past Thursday.
This may be too soon to ask, but are you happy with what you have done so far this season and however it ends up, it ends up?
Yeah, I am. I am really, really pleased with our older guys and particularly Szerszen… I can’t tell you how impressed I am with a Nicolas Szerszen, who obviously has achieved great things in his career individually and as a team leader for the last couple of years. He embraced the role of helping these younger guys develop and being comfortable and being a part of things going forward. He could have been the guy that if they weren’t going well could have given those young guys dirty looks like hey, you are not pulling your weight, but he never did any of that. He was always very supportive, very complimentary of these new faces on the floor. Hey, we need you guys to just play and don’t worry, we will help you get through it and he did a wonderful job as a team leader. I can’t thank Nic enough for his personality on the court and leading our group.