Survive and advance is the post-season mantra, and the Ohio State men’s volleyball team did just that in the semifinal round of the Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association conference championship. No. 2 Buckeyes (39-2, 17-0 MIVA) reigned victorious over No. 11 Ball State (19-10, 9-8 MIVA) in a battle of five sets (25-14, 25-22, 23-25, 23-15, 15-13) for a bid in the MIVA championship game and a chance at an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Ball State came back from a two set deficit to force a fifth set against the top-seeded Buckeyes, in which the teams were tied at 13-13. In an electric atmosphere at St. John Arena, the home team took the set 15-13 after a service error from Cardinal freshman outside hitter Matt Szews and a final block from OSU senior setter Christy Blough.
“It was a tough match,” OSU coach Pete Hanson said. “They did a nice job of really defending the guys that we know are going to hit a lot of balls and it took us to the distance to figure it out.”
The Cardinal’s top-10 nationally ranked defense, which averages 9.37 digs and 2.48 blocks per set, shut down the Buckeye offense in the third and fourth sets. Ball State racked up 15 digs, 3.5 blocks in the third and 17 digs and two blocks in the fourth. The Cardinals held OSU to a .171 attack percentage in the third.
“They’re a good defensive team,” Hanson said. “They spend a lot of time on it and that created momentum for them and kind of frustrated our guys a little bit.”
OSU senior Miles Johnson stepped up and led the Buckeyes with 15 kills, closely followed by junior outside hitters Nicolas Szerzsen with 14 and Maxime Hervoir with 11. Senior middle blocker Driss Guessous had a team-high attack percentage of .538 with eight kills.
Szerszen started off firing in the first set and got the Buckeyes on the board with a back-to-back kill and service ace. OSU took a quick 8-4 lead, forcing a Ball State timeout. The Buckeyes charged on and took the set by 11 points, 25-14. OSU scored six of the last seven points of the set and ended with a .560 attack percentage.
Ball State took an early lead in the second set, 6-3, in part to two service errors from the Buckeyes and kills from Szews and junior outside hitter Mitch Weiler. OSU tied the set at 12 after a powerful kill from Johnson. On the next play, the home team took its first lead of the set, 13-12, thanks to a block from Blough. OSU pulled away and won the set 25-22 to go up 2-0.
In a do-or-die third set for the Cardinals, the two teams battled back-and-forth. No more than one point separated the conference opponents until OSU gained a 9-7 lead. After 12 ties and seven lead changes, Ball State led 24-23. The set came down to a final play in which Ball State junior Matt Walsh blocked an attack from Szerszen to keep his team in the game, 2-1.
The fourth set continued in similar fashion with teams trading points all the way to a tie at 17. Ball State gained a four-point lead, 23-19, after multiple errors from OSU, a service ace from Walsh and a kill from sophomore middle blocker Parker Swartz. The Cardinals won 25-23 to force the fifth set.
Ball State continued its momentum into the fifth set and got off to a quick 7-2 start which forced a Buckeye timeout. OSU fought back and tied it at 8 after a spike from Johnson. The teams were tied yet again at 13 with a chance at the conference championship on the line.
“At that point, I’m happy” Blough said. “We were down 7-2 or 8-3 so that was a little scary in the beginning but when it was 13-13, I was pretty happy and I was also pretty confident.”
The confidence paid off with a game-winning block from Blough to take the set 15-13 and secure OSU’s spot in the title game.
The Buckeyes will host the championship game against Grand Canyon University in St. John Arena on Saturday at 7 p.m.
“It’s absolutely critical,” Hanson said of the home-court advantage. “That’s why you go through the regular season and you win the league and earn this type of environment and earn the support of your home crowd. The ability to be somewhat relaxed and not in somebody else’s gym having to serve at 13-all – that’s huge.”