Men's volleyball: How defending champion Ohio State keeps on top of the game
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Last February, the Ohio State men’s volleyball team, riding a seven-match win streak, hosted longtime rival Ball State. It was a hard-fought match but, despite staving off two match points in the fifth set, the Buckeyes fell to the Cardinals, 3-2.
That didn’t sit well with the team’s leaders.
“We all looked at that loss and, obviously, no one liked it,” senior Miles Johnson said on Monday. “We just had to figure out ways where that wouldn't happen again.”
Following its victory over No. 4 Long Beach State on Saturday, Ohio State has won 32 matches in a row, tying a 47-year-old school record. The Buckeyes are showing no signs of slowing down, either, in their quest to repeat as national champions. The key, said head coach Pete Hanson, is his players’ ability to compartmentalize their tasks.
“‘What do we do next coach? Who's our next opponent? Let's get ready for them. Let’s deal with them. Let’s take care of business,’” Hanson said, explaining his player’s mindset. “And then they move on.”
The Buckeyes’ recent run has included 15 victories over teams ranked in the top 12 and just 19 dropped sets (good for an 83-percent winning percentage). That makes Ohio State (9-0) the unanimous No. 1 team in the country.
Hanson said he noticed his team’s ability to attack the task at hand in the days following the Feb. 6 loss to Ball State. It didn’t dissipate over the offseason following the program’s second national title — a 3-0 victory over BYU — because all but two key contributors return for 2017.
Senior outside hitters Peter Edwards and Christian Franceschi, who had the title-clinching ace against BYU, are the only two pieces that left. The rest of this deep and experienced team, including AVCA National Player of the Year Nicolas Szerszen, is back.
Six Buckeyes have played in at least 90 percent of the team’s sets this season. All six are at least in their third year out of high school. Middle blocker Blake Lesson is a redshirt sophomore, the youngest player in the rotation, while redshirt senior middle blocker Driss Guessous is the veteran of the bunch.
Add to that Johnson, a senior and the most valuable player of last year’s NCAA tournament, Christy Blough, a senior setter who is third in the country in assists per set, and senior libero Gabriel Domecus, and the result is a team fully capable of handling the challenges that come with winning streaks and defending titles.
After Hanson, in his 32nd season with the program, guided OSU to its first national title in 2011, the Buckeyes “almost graduated the whole team,” making their title defense in 2012 even harder, Hanson said. This season the necessary leadership and maturity is there. It manifests in small ways during practice, in the weight room and with the attention to detail in studying the game plan.
“The first couple years that [Johnson], [Blough] and [Domecus] were here, we didn't have a lot of success or at least the success that we were hoping for,” Hanson said. “And those are hard lessons and you learn them and you learn what you have to do to be successful.”
Added Johnson: “I think this group has won in every situation possible, so every situation we face isn't new in any sort of way.”
The next situation for Johnson and his teammates comes Thursday in Muncie, Indiana. There, the Buckeyes will look to notch their program-record 33rd consecutive win against the team they last lost to: No. 12 Ball State.
When the 1970 Ohio State team tried for its 33rd consecutive win, it also played Ball State. It lost in three sets.
“A lot of irony, for sure,” Hanson said.
Yet history — or the history to be made Thursday night — isn’t changing how the Buckeyes will approach this match or any other.
“I don’t think anything [will make us] deviate from what we’ve been doing,” Johnson said.