Erskine, the tiny school from Due West, S.C., and champion of the Conference Carolinas, is in.
Now it should get really interesting in NCAA men’s volleyball.
Five more spots remain in the Division I-II Championship set for Loyola’s Gentile Arena in Chicago, starting on April 29 with two play-in matches.
In the meantime, consider that:
The Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (EIVA) has yet to finish its regular season and then plays its tournament, semifinals and final, at Harvard, April 24 and 26.
The Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) includes the host team, Loyola, ranked first in the nation since early February.
And the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF)?
Good luck sorting that league out, where the top seed lost its last four matches and the Nos. 3, 5, 6, and 7 seeds were all ranked No. 1 at one time or another this season.
Start with Erskine, which defeated Mount Olive 25-20, 26-24, 27-25, Wednesday night in the league tournament title match to capture the Conference Carolinas’ first bid to the NCAA tournament. When they get to Chicago, the Flying Fleet (yes, that’s Erskine’s nickname) will likely be playing in one of the two Tuesday matches. They are now 21-6 overall after finishing 12-2 in league play.
“We know we’re going to be the sixth seed,” head coach Derek Schmitt said matter-of-factly.
Erskine, in only the second year of its program, was never ranked this season. But it did play tough competition, notching three-set losses to both Loyola to open the season in January and to Penn State in February.
What’s more, The Flying Fleet beat Mount Olive in their first meeting, 3-1 in late January, but lost the regular-season rematch 3-2 at home in Due West, 15-12 in the third.
So Wednesday’s conference final was no gimme.
Sophomore Michael Michelau, a 6'3" outside from Milwaukee, “our go-to guy the past two seasons,” Schmitt said, led Erskine with 14 kills, hitting .333. The Flying Fleet got 11 kills from Roberto Perez Vargas, a 6-foot freshman from Puerto Rico, who hit .350.
“This is an amazing feeling,” said Schmitt, who played collegiately at Eastern Nazarene and has coached at Clemson and Southern Wesleyan. “It was a great evening for our program but it hasn’t sunk in yet. The guys played really well against a really good Mount Olive team.”
The six-team field for the NCAA tournament will be announced on NCAA.com on April 27. The top two seeds will automatically play in the Thursday, May 1, semifinals. On that Tuesday, No. 6 (we assume, Erskine) will play No. 3.
“I know exactly where we are. Assuming the tournaments stay to form we’ll probably get the second seed from the MPSF,” Schmitt said. “That’s going to be a great team. Fortunately for us, we’ve played Loyola and Penn State. We’ve seen that level of competition. We’re going to do the best we can to represent Erskine and our conference.”
(For more on the Conference Carolinas, check out this story from our May issue.)
In the other match on Tuesday, No. 4 plays No. 5.
“It’s awesome,” BYU coach Chris McGown said. “We give up one spot to [the Conference Carolinas] to get two spots for two other really quality teams.”
The EIVA still has regular-season matches this week and starts its tournament April 24. Most observers would be shocked if Penn State didn’t win it to make its 26th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Nittany Lions and coach Mark Pavlik won it all in 1994 and 2008 and have won the last 15 EIVA titles.
Pavlik acknowledged that the national picture is a jumble and wide open.
“The parity is so great this year,” he said. “If you can win on the road you’re in great shape but that’s been a tough call for anybody this year.”
Heading into matches Friday at Rutgers-Newark and Saturday against New Jersey Institute of Technology, Penn State stood 20-6 overall and 11-1 in the league, its only EIVA loss coming a Princeton on Feb. 28. The Nittany Lions took their lumps in the first two matches of the season in Hawaii, losing to UCLA and the host team, and later falling to at Ohio State, Long Beach, and Loyola.
The EIVA semifinals will include No. 1 Penn State, No. 2 Harvard (15-7, 11-3), George Mason (14-12, 8-5), and Princeton (14-8, 9-3). But who is the No. 3 seed and who is fourth won’t be determined until after Mason plays at Princeton on Friday.
Loyola (24-1) hasn’t lost since Jan. 4 when it fell 3-1 to visiting USC. The Ramblers are 14-0 in the MIVA. Loyola, currently No. 1 in the poll, will likely get the top seed in the NCAA draw if it wins out and almost certainly would get one of the two at-large bids if it doesn’t. Its slate includes victories over BYU, Erskine, Harvard, and Penn State.
“We’ve proven that we’re a top seed,” 11th-year Loyola coach Shane Davis said.
His team made it to the final four last year and lost to eventual-champion UC Irvine in the semifinals. The best part about last year was, of course, getting there, but more significantly doing it with such a young team.
“The big difference now is we’ve been there and these guys have been there and there’s a different mentality and different confidence than any group I’ve had here at Loyola,” Davis said. And it wasn’t like Loyola didn’t belong last year, losing in three but by scores of 26-24, 25-18, 29-27 in a thriller of a match.
For that matter, every one of the Ramblers is back but one, and there are just three seniors on the team and only one, Dainis Berzins, plays.
“I feel like there was more pressure last year than this year,” Davis said, talking about being the host team.
Before he gets to host anything, first comes the MIVA tournament. Nearby Lewis, another perennial power, sits second at 11-3 in the league and 21-6 overall. Ball State is third (10-4, 21-7), IPFW fourth (9-5, 20-6) and Ohio State fifth (6-8, 11-15).
“It’s going to be interesting, especially with Ohio State sitting at that five-seed in a place where they haven’t been since the ’60s, I believe,” Davis said. “They could definitely pull an upset in the quarterfinals against IPFW, but I think the MIVA in general is stronger than it has been in the past. There will be some upsets in the tournament, but hopefully not us.”
Last year, the Loyola community was noting that it had been 50 years since its basketball team won the school’s only NCAA title. The Ramblers now hope to break a 51-year drought.
And there’s the MPSF, which not only gets an automatic bid but most observers think will get the two at-large if Loyola doesn’t get upset.
USC (16-10 overall, 14-10 MPSF) was last to get into the conference tournament as the eighth seed. The Trojans, who as noted previously, beat Loyola, play top-seeded BYU (18-8, 18-6) in the first round. BYU held seed despite losing its last four matches, back-to-back at Hawaii, at UC Santa Barbara, and at UCLA.
But that doesn’t concern BYU’s coach McGown, whose Cougars lost to UC Irvine in last year’s title match. This season they tied with Pepperdine for first in the MPSF but won out on a tiebreaker because BYU lost in five at Pepperdine but won their match in three at home.
“We’re exactly where we wanted to be. We’re playing at home for the conference tournament and put ourselves in the position to make another run,” said McGown, who, like Davis, agreed that going to the final four last year was a big boost.
“You know what the emotions are like and the match environment and the intensity and the speed. Everything seems to be accelerated just a hair and you get a feeling for all that and it happens in a way that’s un-coachable and indescribable.”
The biggest difference for BYU was losing last year’s super freshman, Ben Patch, to his Mormon mission trip. But Taylor Sander remains as one of the nation’s best players.
UCLA (18-10, 15-9), the five-seed, plays at No. 4 UCSB (17-8, 16-8), as UCSB is a host for the first time since 2007. Sixth-seeded Irvine (18-10, 15-9) is at No. 3 Stanford (20-7, 17-7) and No. 7 Long Beach State (18-9, 15-9) goes to second-seeded Pepperdine (18-6 overall and in the league), which is also ranked second in the most recent national poll. The four winners move on to the semifinals at BYU on April 24.
You can see from the records that almost every team’s losses are from league play and at one time or another Pepperdine, Irvine, Long Beach, and UCLA were ranked No. 1 at least once this season.
“Even in the preseason you could look [at the MPSF] and see that it was a toss-up,” McGown said.
The last words go to Irvine coach David Kniffin, never one to hold back on analysis or opinion.
“I don’t think there’s as much parity as the records indicate,” Kniffin said. “Some teams started out hot and some teams were still forming their identities early and I think what you’re going to see the best rising to the top. I don’t think it’s as even as people make it out to be.”
Funny he would say that, since UCI was 2-4 after its first six matches.
“I think we’re one of the top two teams. I think the team that wins the first-round matchup between us and Stanford is going to have the best shot at winning the title.”
Strong words, considering that the loser will likely be left out on selection Sunday, April 27.
“And I think Stanford is probably the hottest team in the country right now,” Kniffin said, acknowledging the Cardinal’s impressive recent win streak. “They’re the team to beat. Not just because they’ve won 11 in a row, but they’re a senior-laden team.”
If the winner is an MPSF West Coast team, it will contend with three time zones in a short period of time, considering BYU is in the Mountain and Loyola in the Central. What’s more, since the MPSF title match is April 26, a West Coast team might have to consider not returning home, waiting in Provo till Sunday night to find out when or if it plays in Chicago, and then head east. And don’t even bring up Due West.
Regardless, whoever joins Erskine promises to make it a week to remember.
“For us it’s just inverting the journey,” UCI’s Kniffin said. “We started in Chicago [with a win over Lewis and loss at Loyola] and now we want to end in Chicago.”
One way or another, it will end on Chicago on May 3.