LOS ANGELES — Lewis?
“I’m from Cleveland, Ohio,” Lewis fifth-year senior Aaron Flick said. “I tell people I went to Lewis University and they think I either went to Saint Louis or Lewis and Clark. And obviously that’s neither of them.”
No, this Lewis is playing host Southern California in the second semifinal match on Thursday in the 2012 NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship. The Flyers (26-6) have the most wins in the nation. Lewis, which most of the sporting world never heard of, defeated Ohio State, the defending national champion, in five sets this past Saturday to win the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association’s automatic bid.
“I actually live in Downers Grove, Illinois, which is about 20 minutes north of Lewis, so I had actually been to a couple of games before my senior year of high school when [coach Dan Friend] started recruiting me,” Lewis junior Jay Petty said. “At the same time there are a lot of people who don’t know Lewis and don’t know the story behind everything.”
It’s quite a story. This season, the Flyers (26-6) are back in the national semifinals for the first time since 2003 when that team won the title but had it taken away because of NCAA violations.
Lewis is a Catholic school of 6,500 students in Romeoville, Ill., a Chicago suburb.
“This is an accumulation of not only these guys’ hard work, but the hard work we’ve been putting in during the eight years I’ve been there,” Friend said. “We’ve been rebuilding this program and getting it back in the top-10 mix and now we can compete for a national championship. I’m not sure I can express in words how excited we are to be here and have this opportunity to compete.”
USC coach Bill Ferguson, whose team got this tournament’s lone at-large bid, sent Friend a congratulatory text after his Ohio State win.
“I understand the same process that he had to go through. He took over a program that had been successful and had fallen on hard times and he’s done a really steady job of getting them back on,” Ferguson said. “We’re pretty friendly and we’ve talked throughout the years. I was pretty cognizant that it was the culmination of a lot of hard work that he’s put in to get those guys back.”
Lewis made it back to the NCAA championships in 2004, losing to BYU in the semifinals. Not long after, coach Dave Deuser moved on and Friend took over. He took his lumps, with finishes of 17-14 in 2005, 10-18 in 2006, 17-14 in 2007, before seeing some success with a 21-10 record in 2008. The Flyers were almost back, finishing 21-8 in 2009, 19-10 in 2010 and 21-10 last year, losing to Ohio State in the MIVA final.
This past fall, after a women’s match at USC, Lewis actually played the Trojans in the Galen Center, site of Thursday’s matches. During the regular season NCAA teams play best of five; in that meeting USC won a best of three 2-1.
“It was the first game for this team and now we get to play them in the postseason,” USC senior Tony Ciarelli said, who is well aware of one of Lewis’ best players, 6-6 junior Jay Petty. He leads the Flyers in kills and digs.
“I played with Jay Petty a couple of years ago,” Ciarelli said. “He was on the training team for U-21 that went to India. That was a long time ago. He’s changed a lot and has gotten a lot better. Definitely.”
The Lewis attack includes 6-6 junior Ian Karbiener, 6-4 redshirt freshman Geoff Powell, and Flick, who tops the Flyers with a pretty stout .517 hitting percentage.
This season Friend put his team through an aggressive schedule. The Flyers opened by splitting two matches at Pepperdine, they lost to UCLA but beat Hawaii, they beat Penn State and went 9-3 in their conference, which including a 3-0 defeat to Ohio State a month before beating the Buckeyes when it counted most.
“We’ve been scouting USC all week,” Flick said. “We’re really excited about the opportunity to play against them. This is the team we wanted to play against. The opportunity and challenge to play against the host team, it’s incredible.”
USC (23-5) is making back-to-back semifinal appearances and third in four years, so beating the Trojans will be no small task.
“The neat thing about men’s volleyball, it’s the culture. If you ask anybody outside, like in basketball, they’re not going to know who Lewis volleyball is,” Friend said. “But in the world of volleyball, in that small, little niche, even on the women’s side, they do know about Lewis volleyball. They’re aware of it, they’re aware that we’re a top-15 program, but it is a niche thing.
“In the community of Chicago there are a lot of people who know Lewis for when they won and it was taken away, but at the same time they know about the success now.”