Ohio State men’s volleyball head coach Pete Hanson began tempering expectations for this year’s team almost as soon as the past season ended.
The Buckeyes had just won their second consecutive NCAA championship, capping off a 32-2 season, which included a portion of the longest winning streak in the history of Ohio State athletics when Hanson took to the podium for the postgame press conference.
Hanson discussed how proud he was of his senior-laden team, but also reminded everyone that he was losing a lot of contributors to graduation and asked athletic director Gene Smith to go easy on him the following season.
Hanson’s plea was mostly a joke, but there was some truth to it. The Buckeyes lost four starters to graduation following that match with Miles Johnson, Christy Blough, Driss Guessous and Gabriel Domecus all leaving.
It wasn’t like when Ohio State won the title in 2016 and returned nearly its entire roster the following season. The Buckeyes had almost an entirely different starting lineup when they went for the three-peat the following season.
Now, almost a year later, that three-peat is still within reach. After defending both its MIVA regular season and tournament championships, Ohio State is in the NCAA Tournament once again with a chance to defend that title as well.
Senior outside hitter Nicolas Szerszen, one of the few returning starters, said that despite the inexperienced lineup, he always felt his team had the talent to be successful this season. But he didn’t expect the players to be playing quite as well as they have down the stretch.
“I didn’t know that we would be able to come back and kind of dominate some of the top teams in the conference in the finals,” Szerszen said. “It kind of proved that we can do big things and we have a good team right now and we can play tough.”
Hanson said that while this team is inexperienced compared to his past two, the culture of the program and the leadership of the older players allows players to be mentally prepared long before their time comes.
“It’s about getting guys into this program that want to be like those older guys,” Hanson said. “When you ask a young man to come in and he sees the success that some of these other guys have had, he understand the hard work, he understands the expectations. So, they’re already a little ahead of the curb.”
Ohio State hasn’t been completely without veteran players, however, and there’s been none more vital than Szerszen. Arguably the best player in program history, he owns all-time school records with 1,626 kills, 1,969.5 points, 232 service aces and 0.53 aces/set.
Szerszen’s mere presence on the court provides a confidence lift to junior Sanil Thomas, who stepped into the starting setter role for the first time this season after Blough’s departure. Thomas said knowing there’s a player of that caliber to back him up when he makes a mistake alleviates some of the pressure he faces.
“He just makes me look a lot better than I actually am,” Thomas said of Szerszen. “He literally just puts the entire team on his back and just goes all out. He plays his best when the game is tight, and we need some points. When we need him the most, he comes through.”
Szerszen has been an integral part of the previous two national championship teams, and the Buckeyes will need him once again when they make a run at a third title.
Ohio State’s NCAA tournament run begins at 7 p.m. Thursday when the Buckeyes host King in St. John Arena in the tournament’s play-in game, which Ohio State must participate in despite technically earning the No. 5 seed.
The reason is a matter of geography and money rather than merit. Ohio State and King, located in Bristol, Tennessee, are closer to each other than either school is to Harvard. Thus, they were selected as the play-in game while Harvard went straight to Los Angeles to the opening round.
Hanson said while it is a little frustrating, it does provide his team with another chance to play under in-game circumstances and it’s at home, where the Buckeyes have been very successful the past three seasons. Ohio State has lost just one game in 14 home matches in 2018.
“We just have to make the best of it,” Hanson said. “We can sit here and complain until the cows come home but it’s not going to get us closer to playing good volleyball, so let’s just go play.”
If the Buckeyes advance past King, the road doesn’t get any easier. Ohio State would then have to face No. 5 UC Irvine in the opening round before taking on No. 1 Long Beach State in the semifinals.
It’s a tall task, but Hanson said his team is optimistic and ready to compete.
“I think we’re going to talk about as we move forward, ‘Why not us? Why not Ohio State?’” Hanson said. “We’ve got as good of volleyball players as the other guys, we just have to go out and play.”