PALO ALTO, Calif. -- For years the balance of power in men’s collegiate volleyball was firmly entrenched in the west, but several programs outside California have started to exert some new-found muscle.
Universities that were not traditionally prominent in the volleyball landscape will occupy the NCAA men’s championship. Three of the four teams that are in this season’s semifinals are from outside California. Two from Illinois, (Loyola Chicago and Lewis) and the fourth, Penn State.
Lewis is the tournament's No. 1 seed and this is not the first time the team is considered the favorite. The Flyers found some tournament success just more than a decade ago. Shortly after, Dan Friend took over the program and started a monumental rebuilding effort.
“I think they went through their little hiccup period ... and then we brought in 15 freshman in 2005 and built it from the ground up,” Friend said. “Those guys by the time they were seniors went 21-9 and beat UCLA and USC and thought we could play with these guys. They got themselves back ranked in the top 15.”
By 2012 Lewis was back in the NCAA tournament.
“What you saw the next group do was take it to the next step.” Friend said. “It wasn’t just about competing it was about trying to win a national championship.”
That is all that matters to Friend and his team, who aren't caught up in the national ranking.
“We don’t even care,” Friend said. “The way we look at it is it doesn’t matter and we just want to win our first opportunity. Whether you seeded us one, two, three or four it didn’t matter. I think other people look at and after the tournament depending on how we finish we might look back and say that was pretty cool.
"Our body of work this year told everyone we belonged. We are 5-1 this year against the others in this field.”
Though Lewis was not a recognizable name for most in men’s volleyball, Friend used that to his advantage in building the program.
"These are blue collar work ethic guys that might not have been on the radar of other programs but they came into our place and wanted to prove they could play at a high level,” Friend said.
"They bought into the system and have taken it far beyond the expectations that I had in the beginning. I’m excited about what they have done for the program. It’s been a great experience."
One of the ways Friend got the program to the top level was to play contemporaries during the non-conference portion of the schedule.
"I think if you look back I have scheduled tough every year I’ve been there. If you want to play at the top level and you wanted to put the program up there you had to play a tough schedule," Friend said.
"You look at our track record over the last 10 years, we are going west, we’re going east -- we are trying to schedule as tough as possible. I think it’s been good for us. I think it puts it in a good position for preparing for the NCAA's."
However, the team seemed overwhelmed in their first return to the NCAA’s for Friend in 2012.
"I don’t think we fully knew what to expect." Friend said. "Logistics, handling media, handling the hotel and moving around it’s better. We are more relaxed.
"We’re excited to be here but we also know what to expect and how to deal with it. We’re better prepared for it now than maybe we were in the past."
Penn State coach Mark Pavlik, who will face Lewis in the second semifinal game after UC Irvine hosts Loyola Chicago, knows first hand how good Lewis can be, having lost to the Flyers during the regular season.
“They play big boy volleyball,” Pavlik said. “I think it’s men’s volleyball at its finest. I think Dan [Friend] has done a wonderful job. He came in to a tough situation and did a great job rebranding that team.”
Pavlik and Penn State had long gotten used to being somewhat lonely in the midwest but now others have moved up in stature.
“I’ve been coaching for 16 years and the growth of volleyball in the Midwest has just gotten better and better,” Friend said. “What you are seeing is the level of play get better in the Midwest.
"You always had some good teams in the Midwest and the East, but now instead of one or two you are seeing four or five. I think we have to see if we can sustain it. I think like everything it goes in waves, but if coaches stay in place I think it can continue to keep it at that level.”
The West has certainly noticed the shift.
“Lewis is a very disciplined and well-coached team that is deserving of the No. 1 seed,” said UC Irvine coach David Kniffen. “They are not going to give up sloppy points. Dan [Friend] has done a great job there.”
“That’s the ultimate compliment,” Friend said. “When you are recognized by an elite program like [UC Irvine], I think that speaks volumes about what we are doing.”