Men’s volleyball reaches NCVF gold bracket semis before falling to UC Santa Barbara in straight sets
For the second time in four years, and second time in program history, Liberty University’s Division I men’s volleyball team advanced to the National Collegiate Volleyball Federation (NCVF) Championships Final Four, Saturday afternoon at the Phoenix Convention Center.
The top-ranked Flames, who went 7-1 at nationals to finish the spring season at 30-4, entered the gold bracket playoffs as the No. 1 seed and quickly dispatched Grand Canyon University in Saturday morning’s round of 16, 25-20, 25-15, before edging Arizona in a quarterfinal match, 25-21, 25-23. However, facing a University of California Santa Barbara team that started the season at the No. 1 spot in the NCVF rankings, the Flames were ousted by a 25-22, 25-23 count, narrowly missing advancing to a championship showdown with ECVA South rival Virginia Tech.
“That would have been awesome,” Liberty Head Coach Kaleb VanDePerre said. “We beat (the Hokies) four times this season and only lost to them once (in the ECVA South Championship final in Blacksburg, Va.)”
UC Santa Barbara was one of 66 men’s and women’s teams of various divisions in the tournament, more than any other state. By contrast, Liberty and Virginia Tech were two of only nine Virginia colleges and universities in Phoenix.
“We have a tremendous amount of respect for UC Santa Barbara,” VanDePerre said. “They were super scrappy and stayed in system all the time, which made it really hard to get a ball down on them. They had really good tempo and they ran a solid (attack).”
The Flames started slowly in both games and had to try to dig themselves out of a hole.
“We battled back from a few big runs from them and weren’t ever in control,” VanDePerre said. “We did all that scrapping to get back equal and they settled back in and served out the match. We didn’t have our best serving game. Our service pressure the rest of the day had been higher.”
He said the Gauchos were the best defensive team Liberty had faced this season.
“They were so scrappy and they just didn’t quit,” VanDePerre said. “They pursued everything, and got a lot of great touches. When we did get through their block, they still got touches and ups.”
Senior setter Tommy Speelman (77 assists in Saturday’s playoffs) was effective in distributing the ball to utilize the Flames’ offensive weapons.
“He spread the ball well and made good decisions, putting guys in good positions, and had some really good defensive plays,” VanDePerre said. “We played some of our best volleyball in this tournament, though I don’t know if the last set was our best. Santa Barbara was putting us in some uncomfortable spots.”
Senior opposite hitter Josh Knapp (20 kills, 19 errors, 11 blocks), who has put the Flames on his back many times this season, was effectively neutralized by the Gauchos’ defense.
“He got a little better later in the second set, but didn’t have his best game,” VanDePerre said. “Josh could be one of the best players in the country, but we didn’t have to rely on him on every point because we were so strong in the middle and on the pins.”
“(Senior outside hitter) Cross (Edwards, 22 kills, 4 blocks, 3 aces) played really well, hitting out of the back row and keeping us alive,” he added. “We could have used our middles better, but (UC Santa Barbara) also made it hard for us to get them going.”
Senior outside hitter Cody Reinsma added 18 kills and senior middle hitter Luke Marine spiked 13.
He said the Flames took the season-ending setback with sportsmanship that reflected well on their faith.
“It is never fun to not win your final game, especially with all that we accomplished this year,” VanDePerre said. “They reacted the same way they reacted all year, accepting it together. We told them there was no reason they should hang their heads. They realized they were in a good battle and handled it with grace and character.”
Liberty has a roster made up predominantly of seniors, many of whom played on the Division II team that advanced to the gold bracket for the first time when they were freshmen in 2019. This was their first opportunity to contend for a Division I national title after the past two NCVF tournaments were canceled by COVID-19.
“Thinking about this senior class and what they’ve done here … was pretty special,” VanDePerre said. “They’ve helped establish us as a top team in the country and we’ll keep going forward based on what they’ve built.”
He said the tournament was a memorable way for those seniors to go out, fighting for their lives.
“We played a bunch of really good teams this week, which in the moment was frustrating because we thought we should have had an easier draw being the top seed,” VanDePerre said. “But looking back, it was awesome that we got to play so many strong teams and to see how hard we could get pushed. We battled and played really well all tournament.”
Liberty’s DII team lost to Purdue (14-25, 25-19, 15-12) and the University of Southern California (25-12, 25-23) in Friday’s second day of pool play to slip to the silver bracket, where it won a challenge match over Missouri State, 25-23, 25-17, 16-14, before being swept by Marquette, 25-14, 25-22, in Saturday’s round of 16.
Complete results are available online.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video edited by Kylee Lilge/Club Sports Video & Media Assistant