Flames block, set, and spike their way to first Hoosier-Illini Classic championship
Veteran experience and poise under pressure gave Liberty University’s men’s volleyball team the edge it needed to capture its first Hoosier-Illini Classic tournament title, Saturday and Sunday at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.
“We haven’t really been tested in a two-day tournament with back-to-back games in a while so it was really good to see us play tired, which is what (National Collegiate Volleyball Federation (NCVF)) nationals is going to be like,” Flames Head Coach Kaleb VanDePerre said of the April 14-16 tournament in Phoenix. “We faced some adversity and the guys responded well. When matches were tight, as it was to the end of the final against Ohio State, we fought back and were calm, cool, and collected in those situations.”
Playing seven best-of-three matches in two days, the Flames rose to the occasion and put their endurance to the test, passing without too much trouble despite being down a couple players.
“The guys were beat up, and with (senior outside hitter) Cody (Reinsma) out with a shoulder injury and (senior opposite hitter) Josh (Knapp) not at 100 percent, it was a really good test of who could score and step up and make plays,” VanDePerre said, noting that senior outside hitter Tait Lapham filled in for Reinsma and “played out of his mind,” and junior libero Mason Ellenberger returned from a positive COVID-19 test and solidified the back row. “Mason being back was awesome. His serve-receive was really strong and he had a lot of good digs.”
Of the 21 Division I teams in the tournament, eight were ranked in the top 25, with Liberty being the highest at No. 2 in the first (NCVF) rankings. The highest-ranked opponent the Flames faced was No. 8 Ohio State, which they swept in a cross-over match on Saturday to determine the top seed going into the gold bracket.
Liberty finished 4-0 on Saturday, defeating Loyola-Chicago, Illinois State, Indiana, and OSU all by 2-0 game scores, with a spark from Lapham. He totaled 19 kills in the first four matches, ranking third on the team behind Knapp (30) and senior outside hitter Cross Edwards (27), with the entire team hitting at a .357 kill rate.
“We played really steady all day and attacked really efficiently,” VanDePerre said. “Tait played the best he has all season, playing all the way around. (Senior) John (Sauder) played middle for us at times and did well blocking and (graduate) Bran (Anderson) made some really solid defensive plays as defensive specialist. Mason (Ellenberger) was unreal, which is very on-par for him, and (senior setter) Tommy (Speelman) spread the wealth with so many options.”
The Flames had a rematch with Indiana in Sunday’s quarterfinals and were able to tune out the trash talk and stay in their systems to stage another two-game sweep.
“They gave us trouble in the first set (on Saturday) because they are a little bit rowdy,” VanDePerre said. “It took us a little while to settle into our groove, and when we did, we put them away. It was good to experience that because at nationals, that’s the way some teams play.”
“Our team has so much maturity that they know how to slow things down and conserve energy at times, and they don’t tend to get rattled or panicked,” he added. “They play steadily through the course of a game, knowing there are going to be good plays and bad plays, and that we’re going to be tired, but resetting our minds and focusing on each point.”
Sunday morning’s rematch was more of the same as the host Hoosiers came out loud and fired up at the start of the first game, but by the end of it, Liberty quieted them down with their actions on the court.
“I was really proud of the guys for the way they conducted themselves, and went about their business, building that volleyball community and reaffirming our main mission of Training Champions for Christ,” VanDePerre said.
The Flames then swept Eastern Collegiate Volleyball Association (ECVA) rival Virginia Tech in the semifinals before challenging the No. 8 Buckeyes in the final and prevailing 2-1, winning by a 15-12 count in the third-game tiebreaker. Liberty trailed the Buckeyes for most of the third game before getting clutch defensive plays in the final five points, including blocks by senior middle hitter Ben Dowd (10 stuff blocks) and Knapp (11).
“Ohio state was swinging really aggressively, finding some seams, and scoring well,” VanDePerre said. “I felt we were putting up a good block and they were still finding ways to score, but we took a breath and were able to clamp down at the end.”
“Our offense really runs through Josh (Knapp, 65 kills) and we were able to use our middles to open up the outsides,” he added. “Tommy (Speelman, 165 assists, 11 per set) was finding open hitters and they were all scoring against double blocks. When we got into a pickle, we would go to Josh and he got us a side out with a kill.”
Liberty will have next weekend off before traveling to a tournament hosted by Lancaster Bible College on March 5. They will travel to Buena Vista, Va., for a rematch with Southern Virginia University on March 8 before going to Blacksburg, Va., for the ECVA South Division Championships on March 26 and the East Coast Championships at College Park, Md., on April 9, with their finish there determining their seed for nationals. The second semi-weekly NCVF rankings are set to be released this Friday.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media