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    March 26, 2022 Blacksburg, Va. RSS |

    Liberty University’s Division I men’s volleyball team, ranked No. 1 in the National Collegiate Volleyball Federation (NCVF) poll, went undefeated in pool play and advanced to the finals of Saturday’s Eastern Collegiate Volleyball Association (ECVA) South Championships before losing to its closest rival, tournament host Virginia Tech, 18-25, 25-18, 15-13.

    “This was our fourth time playing them this semester and we had beaten them the other three, so they made some adjustments and a few changes in their lineup,” Flames Head Coach Kaleb VanDePerre said. “They moved a few guys around in different positions which made them a little bigger in the front row and a more defensive-based formation, and they put up a huge block.”

    He said as the final score indicated, the match could have gone either way, with the home-court advantage helping the No. 12 Hokies stage the upset.

    “We both played really clean volleyball, and it was a good match back and forth,” VanDePerre said. “We got stuck in rotation and couldn’t side out and they got two big blocks in the latter half of the third game and that was the difference. We will probably see them again at Maryland (in the April 9 East Coast Championships) and we’ll be ready for them.”

    Liberty didn’t drop a game in advancing to the final, opening pool play by dominating North Carolina State, 25-18, 25-11, and UNC Greensboro, 25-18, 25-8, before sweeping JMU, 25-17, 25-17 to finish 3-0 in pool play. The Flames then smoked UNC Chapel Hill, 25-10, 25-11 in the semifinals to set up the showdown with Virginia Tech.

    “We played really well and did some good things,” VanDePerre said. “We distributed the ball really well and played really good defense. Even in the finals, we were still playing well and scoring, getting a lot of digs.”

    Flames junior libero Mason Ellenberger makes a diving dig during a January match against Virginia as (from left) Cross Edwards, John Sauder, Josh Knapp, and Tommy Speelman look on.

    Over the five matches, senior opposite hitter Josh Knapp paced the attack with 36 kills, followed closely by senior opposite hitter Cross Edwards (35), while senior middle hitter Luke Marine and senior outside hitter Tait Lapham both spiked 22.

    “Josh is still working his way back into the lineup, and he is getting a little bit better every day,” VanDePerre said after Knapp missed the past few weeks with lower-body injuries. “We need him to be his best version come April (for the East Coast and NCVF Championships). His serves are getting more aggressive and he is hitting harder on the back row, trying to get his legs back under him.”

    Senior setter Tommy Speelman (115 assists, 23 per match) and Marine both had seven blocks in the five matches followed by Dowd (six), Knapp (five), Edwards (four), and Lapham (four). Junior libero Mason Ellenberger (42 digs) and Speelman (23) both served three aces.

    “(Seniors) Ben (Dowd, 11 kills) and Luke (Marine) both did well in the middle, with Ben starting the day by hitting at a really high percentage, and Tait and Cross played well on the outside,” VanDePerre said. “We couldn’t apply enough service pressure late. We were making our serves, but not knocking (the Hokies) out of system. That is something we can improve on a little bit. We don’t want to miss a bunch of serves, but we want to stress teams a little more on their service-receive.”

    Also on Saturday, Liberty’s B team, ranked No. 3 in the NCVF Division III poll, was upset by the No. 12-ranked Hokies’ second and third teams.

    “Our B team didn’t play as well as we had hoped coming in,” VanDePerre said. “We dropped our first round of pool play in three games to Virginia Tech’s C team (23-25, 26-24, 15-12), which made it harder to make a deep run in the playoffs.”

    The Flames bounced back to defeat Western Carolina in a crossover match, 25-23, 25-20, before rallying to beat Wake Forest, 19-25, 25-13, 15-7, in the final round of pool play and being eliminated by Virginia Tech’s B team, 25-20, 25-16, in the quarterfinals.

    Senior Cooper Guillaume led the Flames with 32 kills, 8 blocks, and 5 aces, followed by junior Tyler Wemple (26 kills), senior Matt Marcinko (15 kills), junior Noah Marine (13 kills, 7 blocks), junior setter Chase Keith, who distributed 86 assists, and senior Tommy Otte, who made a team-high 48 digs.

    The Flames DI and DII teams have two weeks to practice for the April 9 East Coast Championships at the University of Maryland, which will feature 12-team brackets for both featuring the top three teams from each of the four ECVA regions.

    “We should still be a pretty high seed and how we do at the East Coast Championships will impact our nationals seeding,” VanDePerre said.

    Both teams will then fly to Phoenix for the April 14-16 NCVF National Championships, held for the first time since 2019.

    By Ted Allen/Staff Writer

    The Flames and Hokies greet after their Feb. 3 match at Liberty Arena.