It wasn’t easy, but for the first time in five years, the Ohio State men’s volleyball team is the champion of the Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association.
After seeing a 2-0 lead slip away, No. 2 OSU (28-3, 15-1) took care of No. 12 Lewis University (19-13, 10-6) in the decisive fifth set Saturday in St. John Arena to take home its first MIVA tournament title since 2011 (25-18, 25-17, 23-25, 17-25, 15-12).
“(It’s) a lot of hard work finally paying off,” said junior opposite hitter Miles Johnson.
With the win, OSU is one of three programs to earn an automatic berth in the six-team NCAA tournament and appears to have a great shot at earning a top-two seed along with a first-round bye.
The Buckeyes will have plenty of momentum heading into the tournament, as Saturday night’s win marked their 20th straight.
“A game like this that was pretty high stress, good competition is really good practice going into the tournament,” Johnson said.
However, OSU coach Pete Hanson knows his team can’t rest on its laurels.
“It’s a whole new season, now it’s the playoffs,” he said. “It’s like the (Golden State) Warriors. Winning 73 in a row doesn’t mean (anything) if you don’t win the title or play well.”
MIVA player of the year and leading scorer Nicolas Szerszen powered the effort for the Buckeyes. The sophomore outside hitter had 21 kills on the night, while adding two service aces and a block to lead his team with 23.5 points. He saved his best for last, picking up five kills in the fifth and final set.
“Nick is the guy,” Hanson said. “He’s a candidate for player of the year across the whole country, and there’s no doubt. Even when the other side knew Szerszen’s going to get the ball, they have a hard time stopping him. That’s just the mark of a great player.”
Johnson made his presence felt as well, with 16 kills, four blocks and an ace, while junior setter Christy Blough guided the Scarlet and Gray attack with 47 assists.
Both squads came out swinging in the first set and the score stayed close early on. OSU was able to steadily pull away as its offense proved to be too much, outhitting Lewis .667-.370 while making only one attacking error.
After the offensive onslaught in the opening frame, the pace slowed down from there.
The second frame turned into more of a defensive battle, but OSU was able to get the win as it held Lewis to a .042 hitting percentage. Once again, the set was tightly contested initially. Up 15-14, the Buckeyes were able to pull away down the stretch with a 10-3 run.
The Flyers were able to hold off defeat in the third, taking what proved to be another back-and-forth set. Down 22-20 late, Lewis regrouped to win five of the next six points to prolong the match.
Behind the momentum from its third-set win, the visiting squad jumped out to an early lead in the following frame and never let up. Lewis managed a .333 attack rate to extend the match further, as OSU struggled to regain its rhythm on offense with a measly .057 percentage.
The deciding fifth set, however, saw the Buckeyes get back in their rhythm. Powered by Szerszen’s five kills, OSU was able to get the offense back on track, riding a .467 hitting percentage to seal the victory.
It wasn’t easy, though, as Lewis kept things interesting until the bitter end before Johnson picked up a block and a kill and senior outside hitter Christian Franceschi sent home an ace to end it.
Gaining some emotional momentum and focus back at the beginning of the fifth set was huge in holding off the Flyers, Hanson said.
“I think once we kind of got those first couple of points and got that lead, even though we let it slip away, I thought that helped the guys get back in that good state of mind,” he explained.
Moving forward into postseason play, keeping focus for the whole match will be important, Szerszen said.
“We just need to play hard throughout the whole game,” he said. “Do not let up two sets. Just settle down and keep trying to fight hard.”
OSU will learn its tournament fate on Sunday at 1 p.m., as it hopes to earn one of the two first-round byes to earn an automatic ticket to the Final Four in State College, Pennsylvania.