No. 2-ranked Flames men’s volleyball chases No. 5 Nittany Lions out of Liberty Arena
Liberty University’s men’s volleyball team shined brightly under the lights in Liberty Arena early Sunday morning as the Flames, ranked No. 2 in this week’s first National Collegiate Volleyball Federation (NCVF) Division I rankings, rose to the occasion to fend off No. 5 Penn State, 25-22, 25-7, 22-25, 25-23.
“This was a great momentum builder,” said senior opposite hitter Josh Knapp, who spiked a match-high 21 kills. “All of these Arena games we’ve had have just shown us what we can do, playing some great competition against Virginia Tech, UVA, the top-10 ranked teams we’ve been going up against.”
The event, streamed live on ESPN+, drew approximately 2,500 mostly student body fans, with Sparky and the Jokers adding some animated antics along with the between-game contests and entertainment.
“Awesome crowd, awesome turnout,” Liberty Head Coach Kaleb VanDePerre said. “Being here full-capacity is just so unreal. It’s a great experience for us. The guys played well in a hyped environment, which is good.”
“We love the fans and they were great today,” Knapp added. “A lot of these guys are our friends, and we had a lot of recruits here tonight as well. The energy was amazing and there’s nothing like this … just sharing the love of volleyball that we have.”
Despite playing without starting libero Mason Ellenberger, who was in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, the Flames settled down quickly and got into a groove both offensively and defensively, with senior setter Tommy Speelman serving and middle blocker Luke Marine spiking a block from the middle before going up in tandem with senior outside hitter Cross Edwards (nine kills) for a stuff block at the left side.
Knapp spiked three cross-court kills and one down the line off a Penn State tip before Edwards spiked a cross-court kill for an early 8-6 Liberty lead.
“Josh kind of carried the load and the middles did well,” VanDePerre said. “This is a team win, which is kind of the recipe we have for success. They stayed disciplined and adjusted and responded well when they got into tight situations. They rode through (the storms) and tried to kind of find a rhythm and then tried to finish strong.”
Graduate Brannon Anderson, playing in Ellenberger’s place, covered the court effectively, making more than his share of saving digs.
“Brannon’s been playing really well all season with kind of that ‘next man up’ mentality,” VanDePerre said. “They battle and they support each other really well. Brandon goes against our starters every day at practice, so he’s seen a lot of high-level play.”
PSU seized its first lead, 10-9, with a spike down the middle before extending it to 12-9, prompting VanDePerre to call timeout. Kills by Speelman and Knapp and a stuff block by Marine pulled the Flames back within 13-12 before a block by senior middle hitter Ben Dowd and cross-court kill by Marine gave Liberty an 18-17 advantage. Three key defensive saves and a cross-court kill by Knapp made it 20-17 before a spike by Dowd and cross-court kill by Knapp stretched it to 21-17.
Knapp hit a sharp-angled cross-court kill from the right side before he dinked over a Penn State block to give Liberty a 23-20 lead. After Penn State served out of bounds, senior outside hitter Cody Reinsma closed out Game 1 at 25-22 with one of his 11 kills off a Penn State block at the left side.
Spike kills by Reinsma and Knapp, a service winner by Speelman, and stuff block by Marine lifted Liberty to an early 5-2 lead in Game 2 before another block by Marine and ace by senior outside hitter Tait Lapham stretched the edge to 8-3. A kill by Edwards and stuff block by Speelman later extended Liberty’s lead to 18-6 and cross-court kill by Reinsma stretched it to 22-7 before Marine added an exclamation point with his spike kill straight down to the floor. Edwards spiked through a block, setting up game point, and the Nittany Lions ended Game 2 with an unforced error.
“Tommy (Speelman) was really good at spreading out the ball,” Knapp said. “He’s been super consistent with that and all the guys have been playing very well together, integrating as a team. We’ve been together since freshman year and we know each other so well. We have a huge senior class with some really big guys with some height up there, so our block has been pretty unstoppable recently and it really puts a lot of pressure on (the opposing) team.”
After dropping Game 3, two kills by Reinsma sparked the Flames’ attack early in Game 4. Dowd kept Liberty in the lead at 6-5 with a kill from the middle but the Nittany Lions fought back to tie the game at 10. Spike kills by Marine and Knapp gave Knapp the serve back, leading 13-12, and a kill by Edwards and block by Speelman padded the advantage to 15-12.
Knapp tied the game at 22 with a spike off the face of a Penn State player before Dowd stuff blocked a spike in the middle and Marine served an ace, setting up match point, with Liberty leading 24-22. After a timeout by the Nittany Lions, Edwards put the victory on ice with a punch kill off a Penn State block at the left side of the net.
In the DIII showdown that preceded the “Midnight” match, Penn State, ranked No. 3 in NCVF, swept the top-ranked Flames, 25-21, 25-23.
Next weekend, the Flames’ DI team will travel to Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., to compete against many top teams in the Midwest at the Hoosier-Illini tournament, co-hosted by the University of Illinois.
“There will be some great competition out there, and it will be a great test of how the rest of the season will go for us,” Knapp said. “We’re just looking forward to refining that skill as we get closer (to the April 14-16 NCVF National Championships in Phoenix). Our target is to win that national championship. That’s been our goal since Day 1. Luke (Marine) and I have been saying that since our freshman year so this is our last shot, and we’re going to give it what we’ve got.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; LFSN video