The No. 1 Ohio State men’s volleyball team (31-2) defeated No. 4 Hawai’i (27-6) in three sets Thursday night at St. John Arena to advance to Saturday’s NCAA tournament final against Brigham Young University for the second consecutive year.
After a tight first set, the Buckeyes dominated the Rainbow Warriors from the service line and at the net en route to a 25-22, 25-18, 25-19 victory.
OSU junior outside hitter Nicolas Szerszen led the Buckeyes with 10 kills and senior opposite hitter Miles Johnson added nine. Hawaii’s Stijn van Tilburg paced the Warriors offense with 12 kills.
“As the match unfolded, it just looked like our guys had some poise and some experience,” OSU coach Pete Hanson said.
Szerszen missed out on the national player of the year award after winning last season, but he was menacing from the service line. The Buckeyes led 9-8 in the second set when Szerszen rattled off five straight points on four service aces and one kill from the back row before leaving the service line with his team leading 15-9. From there, OSU cruised to a straight-set berth into the title match.
“Nic does a great job serving every single match,” said senior libero Gabriel Domecus. “And when he gets on those runs, everyone just kind of takes a breath and we’re playing in that relaxed state. I feel like everyone’s game goes up.”
Redshirt senior middle blocker Driss Guessous set the pace for the Buckeyes in the first set with four successful swings and an assist. OSU had 5.5 team blocks to Hawaii’s zero blocks in the first set.
Throughout the entire match, OSU owned the net. The Scarlet and Gray, energized by a pro-Buckeye crowd of 4,834, were in control of almost every point with 11 total blocks compared to Hawaii’s one block.
Johnson and Szerszen struggled in the first set with just seven kills and four hitting errors combined. But with Guessous’ four kills in the first set and consistent setting by senior setter Christy Blough, the Buckeyes only relinquished the lead once in the entire match.
The defense was particularly strong, holding Hawaii to a .256 hitting percentage and forcing 16 hitting errors along with the 11 blocks. Szerszen and Domecus led the team in digs with eight and seven, respectively.
“If we can get a touch, maybe we can get a dig and turn some points,” Hanson said. “That’s the other key: If you do get a hand on it, get it in a position where you can end the rally with a transition swing.”
One of the OSU’s key role players was redshirt sophomore middle blocker Blake Leeson. He had a modest three kills on five swings, but his six block assists doubled the next highest total on the team. In the third set, he even had a cross-court save that was set perfectly to Johnson for a kill to give the Buckeyes a 5-3 advantage.
“That might be the best volleyball play Blake Leeson has made in the three years that he’s been here,” Hanson said. “Typically when a middle blocker hits a ball like that, it’s usually over the bench and over the coach’s head and we don’t score that point.”
The Buckeyes now move forward to the national championship match for a second straight season against the Cougars on Saturday at 7 p.m. at St. John Arena. OSU defeated BYU in the 2016 national championship in straight sets.
The No. 3 Cougars dominated second-ranked Long Beach State in straight sets in the first semifinal with a .426 hitting percentage. Hanson said the key for the Buckeyes will be to keep BYU off the net and dictate where the ball will be in order to set up a block.
“Our guys know what’s in front of them,” he said. “We’ve been in that situation since January … Are you the hunted or the hunter? It’s different. We get it. It’s going to be a challenge because they’re clearly playing at a real high level.”