NCAA tournament report — Semifinal round

A long NCAA men’s volleyball season has led up to tonight, as four teams do battle for the right to play for a national title. In a pair of regular season rematches, BYU and Stanford met for the fourth time on the year (just think if this had been UCLA and Stanford — could potentially have been their fifth meeting), while the homestanding Loyola Ramblers face Penn State, a team they defeated in four sets in late March.

It was the intra-MPSF meeting that got underway first. Taylor Sander started the match on serve for the Cougars, but the Cardinal got a quick first-ball sideout. Brian Cook took the first point on serve, his own serve as it happened, as he found hands on his back-row hit. Initially, the up referee pointed towards BYU’s side, but he deferred to the down referee who called a touch. Steven Irvin‘s kill from the left side made it 5-2, and the Cardinal lead extended to four at 6-2 before Josue Rivera sided the Cougars back out. The Puerto Rican with the neon shoes then took to the service line, and it looked like a rally was going to unfold to favour the Cougars, but the dig/pass of Eric Mochalski‘s hit, though in proper position, proved to be a shank. An attacking error on Sander got Stanford to an 8-3 lead, and BYU coach Chris McGown called time.

Sander got the Cougars back on the board after the timeout, but Irvin responded with another sideout of his own. The lead of five remained through the Cardinal reaching double digits at 10-5. BYU briefly drew a point back, but just as quickly, Stanford got it back and another, getting their first six-point lead of the set at 14-8. The even exchange of sideouts continued, obviously favouring the team in red. Sander took to the service line at 17-12 and let loose a ripper, but Stanford got a good bump, set and spike in. The Cougars managed to dig it, but it didn’t really matter, as setter James Shaw led the double block to keep the sideout string rolling. 19-13 was a somewhat long rally, ending with some remarkable effort by the Cardinal to keep the ball up, though Mochalski’s flailing lunge to get the ball over the net resulted in it landing out of bounds.

The Cardinal reached 20 with their six-point lead intact, at 20-14. A net or centre line violation whistled against Tim Dobbert put the Cardinal up a touchdown. That prompted McGown to expend his second and final timeout of the set. BYU got the first-ball sideout after the timeout, but precious little road remained for them to climb back into the set. Sander finally scored BYU’s first point on serve in approximately forever, getting them to within five at 22-17. A perfectly-placed setter dump from Shaw marched Stanford on. A great dig from Grant Delgado on the 23-17 rally went for naught as Irvin found the net (his first hitting error of the set against 7 kills), but it didn’t matter. Mochalski’s kill from the right side got Stanford to set point up six at 24-18, and another ended it on serve for the boys from Palo Alto.

Stanford were impressive in set 1, hitting .679 as BYU failed to get out of the blocks in the blocking game. The Cardinal accrued 20 kills, with Shaw notching a tidy 17 assists. The big scorers were Mochalski, with 9 kills on an errorless 10 swings, and Irvin with 8 kills. Cook was quiet, with just a single kill in the first frame.

It looked like the Cardinal got on the board first to begin set 2, but the up ref called an overreach fault. Cook briefly had words with the up ref, but that never amounts to anything. The Cougars got their first block of the night on the next rally to go up 2-0, with Dobbert and Michael Hatch combining for the rejection. Sander’s run on serve continued with an ace to make it three-nil, before Shaw got his team on the board with a dump kill. He then went back to serve and got one back in style with a service ace. A touch/no touch call went BYU’s way on their serve at 5-3, much to the Cardinal’s clear chagrin. At 6-3, setter Robbie Sutton got away with a pretty dodgy set right in front of the up ref, which ended up leading to a BYU kill and a Stanford timeout.

Bad Cardinal passing on the first serve after the timeout led to an absurdly easy block for Rivera on the front line to make it 8-3 Cougars. Shaw then fed Mochalski on the right side, but he too swung into the block, putting BYU up six. More good digging by the team from Provo got them a swing on the next rally, too, and Sander capitalised, to make it 10-3 BYU. Finally, Dobbert’s run on serve ended with a service error. A double block for Irvin and Conrad Kaminski got Stanford back within five at 10-5, which prompted BYU to call time.

The Cardinal dug Spencer Haly‘s jump-float serve after the timeout, getting Dobbert a right-side swing that he put away for the sideout. Shaw and Kaminski combined for the double block on 13-7 to get Stanford back within five once more. The versatile Stanford setter put up the solo block on the next rally, and was visibly fired up about that. Kaminski found blissfully unguarded floor for an ace to make it 13-10, and Stanford were suddenly right back in it. His next serve landed long, but he got lots of high fives on the bench as he rotated out for the libero.

Sander took to the service line after the sideout, and claimed one on his own serve to put BYU back up five. On 15-10, it looked like Stanford had set their offence pretty nicely, but the right side kill landed well and obviously out, with no touch. BYU celebrated the point as Stanford coach John Kosty called his last timeout of the set.

A frenetic play after the timeout — Shaw tried twice to dump but got dug both times — eventually ended with a left-side kill for Stanford for the sideout. Shaw then rotated to serve, but audibly (even on the webstream) shouted “No!” as soon as he did. And the serve found nothing but net. A little later, a Mochalski ace drew Stanford within 19-15, setting up the longest rally of the match. A lot of off-balance sets led to some awkward hits, with one of them leading to the Devin Young/Robbie Sutton double block to get BYU to 20. Stanford serving specialist Scott Sakaida came in on 21-17. The Cougars dug his hybrid serve pretty easily, and their resultant hit wasn’t legally returned. But it wasn’t for lack of effort from Sakaida — he laid out in pursuit of the wayward ball, getting a third contact well away from Stanford’s playing area. Too far to get it back over.

Sander took to the service line at 22-17. An ace and a Cougar kill brought them to set point at 24-17. A really bad set by BYU libero Jaylen Reyes staved off one set point for the Cardinal, and when the California team saved another with a Cook solo block, BYU coach McGown called his second timeout.

Shaw kept serving after the timeout. The Cougars got an easy-peasy pass off to Sutton, who set Rivera on the left side, but the man with the green shoes hit wide to make it 24-20. A kill for Irvin made it 24-21, and the Cougars started to look a little nervous. That’s when National Player of the Year Sander said “enough is enough” and at last found the floor for a 25-21 set final, ensuring there’d be no sweep.

Set 3 started off with BYU on serve, but they were quickly able to serve with the lead thanks to a back-row attack fault on Irvin — guess his toes were on the line. That fault constituted the first lead change of the night. A solo block from Young put them up two at 5-3. Both teams displayed terrific agility on the 5-3 rally, with Sutton on one side of the net and Shaw on the other keeping seemingly impossible balls up. Eventually Mochalski got the kill to sideout for the Cardinal. 7-5 was another long rally, ending with a knuckleball-esque hit from Sander that reached the floor in front of a diving Delgado not because of power or speed, but more surprise. The 8-5 rally involved a terrific effort from BYU middle blocker Hatch to track down a wayward pass (and quick thinking from the BYU bench players to get out of his way), but Stanford ended up siding out with Mochalski. A double block touch led by Hatch on the right side led to passing breakdowns on the Stanford side, and they called time down 10-6.

Sander just missed his serve long after the timeout, siding the Cardinal out. Shaw then drilled the net on his subsequent serve, and BYU remained ahead by four. Then on the 11-7 rally, Shaw was able to save a ball going over the net, leading to a kill for Cook. Remember — he had just served. So I’m pretty sure he got away with one there. On 12-8, a soft tip from Irvin found the leaping block of Devin Young, giving BYU the five-point lead at 13-8. The next rally was very long, with lots of digs, ending with a back-row kill by Cook. The lead reached six at 15-9 on an ace from Rivera. Two rallies later, Stanford called time looking at a 16-10 deficit.

The Cardinal got the sideout with Irvin after the timeout, and then he followed that up with an ace. That, quickly, prompted a BYU timeout. Irvin continued serving after that timeout, and though it looked like BYU got a good pass off, Sander’s cross-court hit still landed wide. Dobbert put a cap on that run to get BYU back ahead four at 17-13. Cook then went to work, with back to back kills getting Stanford back within a brace. A Mochalski kill — somehow managing to posterise Sutton while the BYU setter was in the back row — made it 17-16, and BYU called time.

A Stanford net fault managed to side BYU out to get back to a two-point edge, at 18-16. Coach Kosty protested with the down official, who made the call, but obviously to no avail. That sent the always dangerous Sander to the service line, but Stanford got him off after just one serve. At 19-17, the up official whistled a ball dead on the Stanford side, calling four touches. Cook had a brief word with him, and the replay signal was made. That prompted Sander to have a little chat– and then the down official, too –, but the revised call stood, to McGown’s dismay.

A thunderous back-row kill on the Stanford side made it 19-18. Cook got the kill to knot the score at 20-all, his hit finding Dobbert’s dome on its way to the floor. 20-all was another contentious call, as it looked like Stanford had the huge kill to take their first lead in forever, but the down official called a net touch against Kaminski. An unforced error by the Card made it 22-20. The BYU lead made it to 23-20 before Rivera’s service error long got the Cardinal back on the board. That sent Mochalski to serve, but he hit the net with his serve, giving BYU set point. Sander’s hit on 24-21 was ruled out with no touch. He obviously thought differently as he implored the up official, but the call stood. No real matter — he ended proceedings cleanly on the next rally for a 25-22 final.

Kaminski got Stanford on the board first in set 4 with a service ace, but after the sideout BYU went on a little roll with Sander back there. The ‘Sandman’ got an ace of his own, and took his Cougars to a two-point lead before Haly got the sideout on the quick up the middle. 3-2 was a long rally, with both sides making small mistakes keeping them from setting their offences as well as they’d like. The point ended with a double block from Dobbert and Hatch, sending the latter back to serve. A few more sideouts later, the Cardinal drew the set even at 6-all, a dump kill from Shaw the equaliser.

The next rally was a little strange. Shaw bailed out his back row by deftly running down a pass that led him wide of the playing area,  getting a set up to the middle/back row for….no one. Both sides traded free balls as the rally wore on, with BYU eventually claiming the point on a kill off the block and out.

More sideouts ensued, until a service ace for Sander put the Cougars back up two at 10-8. His next serve found the net, but that’s still a net plus for the Utahans. A terrific dig from Delgado on the 10-9 rally led to a kill for Cook to again tie the score. A double block for Irvin and Haly gave them their first lead of the set since 1-0. That prompted BYU’s timeout.

The lead quickly grew to two, at 14-12, but Devin Young’s solo rejection of Kaminski up the middle (looked like a good quick set) tied the score again at 14-all. Stanford took a timeout when BYU wrested the lead back at 16-15. A solo block for Hatch got BYU the ‘true’ lead at 17-15 before Stanford sided out. On that play, Rivera ended up flat on his back and grimaced a little as he got up. Irvin claimed one on his own serve at 17-16 to tie the set again at 17’s, and Stanford took the lead back with an aggressive two-handed push up the middle from Shaw. It looked out to me, but it was called in with no touch, and the Cardinal took an 18-17 lead.

At 19-all, BYU took a very long rally to reach 20 first. It ended with Irvin drilling the net off the bic. He showed obvious frustration — but I’m pretty sure it was the team’s fourth hit anyway. That prompted Stanford’s last timeout. On the first rally back, Mochalski swung straight into Rivera’s block, giving BYU back the important two-point lead. Stanford then managed to sideout to make it 21-20, sending Shaw back to serve. Cook and Haly’s big double block tied the score again at 21-all, and BYU called time.

Shaw got off a nice serve after the timeout, but an even nice pass and set on the BYU side led to a kill for Rivera to make it 22-21. Hatch’s serve at 22-21 was really close, but ruled out. On 22-all, it looked like Sutton had the kill off the dump, but after a brief conference, he was instead ruled for a back-row attack, giving Stanford the 23rd point.

Then things got intense. At 23-all, the teams played a rally to see whether match point or set point that came next. It was match point, as Young’s kill put BYU up 24-23. Irvin staved it off, his kill making a 24-all tie. Dobbert get BYU their next match point on the next play, but the 25-24 rally ended before it began with a service error from Rivera. Then Stanford got their first set point chance at 26-25, when Sander missed wide from the left side, with no touch. The Sandman’s next hit found the floor, making the score 26-all. Shaw leapt to eat up an overpass on the next rally, making it 27-26. Stanford almost won the set on a let-serve, but the Cougars kept it up and fed you-know-who (Sander) for the next tying kill. At 27-all, Kaminski got the kill up the middle to make it 28-27. He then rotated back to serve, and ended the frame beautifully with a service ace for a 29-27 final.

The decider started just as the 4th had — with a Conrad Kaminski ace. But it was BYU taking the first two-point lead, with a kill from Rivera making it 4-2. An even exchange of points ensued, with dueling first-team All-Americans Sander and Cook trading awesome back-row kills. The tit-for-tat went through to the side change at 8-6.

The even exchange of points wore on, favouring the team in white this time. At 9-7, Stanford indeed got the next point to keep the sideout pattern going, but more significant was some foot-on-foot action between Hatch and Mochalski at the net, with Hatch getting the worst of it. McGown called time there to assess his player. It looked as if freshman Joseph Grosh might come in, as he was loosening up on the sideline during the timeout, but afterward Hatch went back into the match.

After the timeout, Mochalski collided with a BYU player again, this time Rivera. He got the point, though, to tie the score at 9-all (and Rivera was fine. Mochalski helped him up, they shared a quick handshake, and it was good). A block for Mochalski gave Stanford their first lead of the fifth set at 10-9, and BYU called time.

BYU went to Sander after the timeout — of course they did — but Stanford formed the triple block up the middle and took the critical two-point lead. A line kill for Cook made it 12-9 Stanford. A service error gave the ball back to BYU, and they turned to a serving substitute in Matt Underwood, erstwhile backup to 2013 national freshman of the year Ben Patch. The Cougars clawed a point back to get to 12-11, and Stanford called the last timeout of the match.

After the timeout, Mochalski edged Stanford closer with a kill to make it 13-11. It was a close call, and McGown gave the officials an earful when it didn’t go his side’s way. But obviously, that changed nothing. A kill for Irvin made it match point Stanford at 14-11, and while Rivera staved one off, a kill for Brian Cook out of the back row was what Stanford to the national final.

#3 Stanford d. #2 BYU (25-18, 21-25, 22-25, 29-27, 15-12)

Stat sheet

This match was a microcosm of these two teams’ seasons. It was expected to be good, but who expected it to be this good? Hats off to both clubs for a classic — this would have been a worthy national championship match. But it wasn’t, and it’s Stanford who move on to Saturday’s final.

Taylor Sander has to go into the books as one of the best ever never to win a national title. Not the kind of distinction you want for yourself, I’m sure, but it’s the truth. And to those who may have looked at BYU’s home/road splits this season and sneered a little, noting that while BYU were undefeated at home they were actually sub-.500 away from it (7-8), I say this match proved the Cougars were for real in 2014. They played arguably the best match of the season against a damned good Stanford team, away from the Smith Field House. Quite honestly, they probably should have closed it out in four (Sander said as much directly after the match), but you can play coulda-woulda-shoulda forever. What happened was what happened, and it still reflects well on BYU. Though right now that’s small consolation. In a bit of history BYU surely didn’t want to make, this is the first time they’ve ever made the NCAA tournament and not reached the national championship match.

Big congratulations go out to the Stanford Cardinal, as they will now play for their first national championship since 2010.

The nightcap brought the crowd out, as the Gentile Arena was packed for the hometown Loyola Ramblers and their battle with the Penn State Nittany Lions. This match had just as much intrigue behind it as the first semifinal. The winner would either be Loyola, who would then play for the national title on home court in two days’ time, or Penn State, who would take a step closer to a men’s/women’s volleyball national title two-fer in 2013-14, a trick they turned in 2007-08 (and Connecticut did in basketball this year). And I thought it had a good shot to be another entertaining match.

Joe Smalzer got Loyola on the board first to start the match. Nick Goodell answered right back. Aaron Russell got his name in the scorebook early with a nice kill from the back row making it 2-1 Penn State. First-team All-American Thomas Jaeschke got his account open with the kill that tied the score at 3-all. The Ramblers took the lead back at 5-4 when Nittany Lion setter Taylor Hammond was whistled for a back row fault An ace for Jaeschke put them up two at 7-5. Russell hit wide with no touch on the next rally, putting the Ramblers up 8-5. The Loyola back row made a small mistake on the 8-5 rally, saving a ball that was flying long, but Cody Caldwell made it moot with a smash off the block and out. That prompted Penn State coach Mark Pavlik to call time.

Russell put a capper on the Rambler run after the timeout, his third kill making it 9-6. A first ball sideout from Smalzer on the right side got Loyola the point right back. The lead increased to 11-6 as the Nittany Lions were called for a net fault on a 50/50 ball at the net. A setter/hitter miscommunication on the Penn State gave Peter Hutz and Smalzer another chance at a winning connection, and they took advantage to go double up on Penn State. Finally, Owen McAndrews‘ service run ended at 12-7, on a service error.

And that’s when my home wifi signal decided to stop cooperating. Really, I’m amazed it lasted as long as it did. I missed the rest of the first set, which Loyola won by a 25-20 count. They increased their lead steadily as the set wore on and then weathered a late Penn State surge to seal the deal. It stayed out through the first half of set 2 as well.

But it eventually came back on, midway through the second set. Loyola held another solid lead, at 12-8, before the Nittany Lions rattled off six straight to take a two-point lead. It looked like they made it seven in a row, but a close in/out call went in the Ramblers’ favour. Hammond had a quick chat with the up ref, but nothing changed. A double block for Hutz and Caldwell tied the score at 16-all, and Jaeschke snuck a kill in right-back to go up 17-16. That prompted Penn State’s timeout.

Penn State drew back level at 19-all, and the score stayed tied at each numeral score through 22. Penn State won a long rally on 22-all with a cross-court kill from Goodell that I thought looked out, but I’m not gonna say I have a better view than the flagger. Loyola called time, but it proved fruitless. Penn State quickly got set point at 24-22, and their go-to guy Russell sealed the deal without the Nittany Lions even needing a reception attempt.

Jaeschke gobbled up an overpass on the first rally of set 3 to get his Ramblers on the board. The teams traded points for a stretch, with ties at each score through 5 before a setting miscue put Loyola ahead 7-5. A kill for Peter Russell and a hitting error wide from Jaeschke squared the score again at 7-all. Tie scores continued coming, through 11-all when the Ramblers won a long rally to go up a point at 12-11. Smalzer followed that up with an ace, as the home crowd roared. Penn State wisely called time there try to cool off the fans as much as anything else.

Smalzer’s next serve flew long, but he got the point back with a kill on Caldwell’s serve at 14-12. Jaeschke’s kill on the 15-12 rally put Loyola up four, a comfortable lead with how back-and-forth the recent trends of the match had been. Serving sub Zack Parik peeled back one point with an ace that made it 18-16, but his next serve landed well wide (I’m not even sure it crossed the antenna on the right side). At 20-17, a contentious touch/no touch call went Penn State’s way, swinging the deficit from a possible 4 down to 2. Loyola coach Shane Davis gave the down referee an earful, but the call stood. At 21-18, Loyola rotated Smalzer to the service line. His powerful serve didn’t really play into the point much, but the ensuing long rally did go Loyola’s way, prompting Penn State to call time down 22-18.

The Ramblers quickly reached set point at 24-19. Caldwell went for it on serve — as Loyola did all night — and had it land long. An excellent serve from Goodell led to Peter Russell taking full advantage of the resulting overpass. Loyola called time there, and whether it was meant to ice the server or not, it effectively did — the first serve back was an error.

Penn State took the early lead in set 3. A great diving dig from Connor Curry on the 2-0 rally eventually led to a solo block for Matt Seifert, who was visibly excited to take the lead. Then a bit of a miscommunication on the Penn State side led to the Ramblers’ first point, as Caldwell sent over a free ball from an awkward angle that rode the top of the tape for a moment before coming down. Nobody on the Penn State side got under it. That sent Smalzer back to serve for Loyola, and he notched another ace to get a point closer. The double block from Hutz and Nicholas Olson knotted the score at 4-all.

The “L-U!” chants started energetically as Loyola took their first lead of the set at 6-5. Loyola took a brief two-point lead, but some close calls went against them to get Penn State back to even at 9-all. A kill for Peter Russell off Seifert’s serve put the Nittany Lions back on top 12-11. When the lead reached two at 13-11, Coach Davis saw fit to call time.

Kills from the hot hand of Thomas Jaeschke, the last of them on a sneaky little tip shot, helped draw Loyola back to level at 14-all. Just as quickly, Rambler errors helped Penn State take four of five to edge back ahead 18-15 and prompt Loyola’s second timeout.

After a few sideouts, Goodell’s kill on 20-17 put Penn State up by four, making it all too clear that we were headed to our second fifth set of the night. An Aaron Russell service ace made it 22-17. Another from Seifert made it set point at 24-18. A solo block for Goodell sent us to our second fifth set of the night.

Loud “L-U!” chants broke out in the Gentile Arena before the decider even got underway. And to say it was tight would be an understatement. There were ties at each score through to the side change, with Loyola up a scant 8-7. Neither side looked to be effected by the pressure or the stage at all. The Ramblers took the first two-point lead of the decider right after the side change with a kill from Olson, and Coach Pavlik immediately took his first charged timeout.

A double block for Olson and Hutz extended Loyola to a 10-7 lead. The Nittany Lions managed to sideout there, but another double block — this time Olson and Caldwell — kept Loyola ahead by three on 11-8. Penn State weren’t done, as Aaron Russell soared from the back row with a pipe kill to make it a one-point set again at 11-10. That prompted a Loyola timeout.

Goodell went for it on the serve after the timeout, and missed just long. Loyola brought in a serving sub, Diego Rodriguez, but Penn State passed his jump-float just fine and got the sideout with Aaron Russell’s 17th kill of the match. 12-11 was a long rally, with both teams getting chances at it and showing some fine defence. It ended with Goodell’s cross-court hit landing just wide, which prompted the Nittany Lions’ final timeout.

13-11 started out as one of those tense points that could go either way — until Aaron Russell hit into the net. The final point of the match was another somewhat anticlimactic (another Penn State error) but I’m sure the Loyola fans couldn’t care less.

#1 Loyola d. #5 Penn State (25-20, 22-25, 25-21, 18-25, 15-11)

Stat sheet

Another thriller, though as you may have been able to discern from reading I was really getting tired as it wore on. Hey, I work early in the day. According to Vinnie over at Off the Block, this is the first time both national semifinals were five-setters in tournament history. It’s the first time even one of them was a five-setter since 2006, when Penn State went the distance to knock off UC Irvine.

You know what they say about defence winning championships? That was on display in this match. The two teams hit for fairly pedestrian efficiencies (.314 for Loyola, .259 for Penn State), despite also fairly pedestrian (if not just plain poor) blocking numbers for both teams — just 5 total blocks in a five-set match for Penn State, 6 for Loyola. The difference, then, is digs. Penn State had 54, Loyola had 51. And that’s a lot for the men’s game. Curry, Goodell, and both Russell brothers were in double figures in digs for the interlopers from State College, while on the other side of the net the same trick was turned by Caldwell, Jaeschke, and libero Peter Jasaitis, who had an outstanding match despite my not using his name once in the rundown. All the hitters in question (Caldwell, Jaeschke, Goodell, and the Russells) notched double-doubles, also being in double figures in kills.

Penn State’s offence ended up a little on the predictable side, with the three aforementioned hitters each having double-digit kills, but no one else even having double-digit swings. Loyola, on the other hand, had five hitters take double-digit swings, and Smalzer just missed double-digit kills by racking up 9.

Needless to say, it’s a history-making win for Loyola, as they advance to their first national championship match this

Bill Harvey

About Bill Harvey

Volleyball fanatic and Sports statistician! Growing the sport of Volleyball in all formats everywhere.