COLUMBUS, Ohio – The 10th-ranked and fourth-seed Ohio State (16-10 overall, 9-1 Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association Champion) men’s volleyball team will face top-ranked and No. 1 seed UC Irvine (25-5, 19-3 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Champion) at 11 p.m. ET Thursday in the NCAA National Championship semifinals at Smith Fieldhouse on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo Utah. The first semifinal has fifth-ranked and second-seed Penn State (27-3, 12-0 Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association champion), the defending national champion, facing fourth-ranked and third-seed Southern California (20-10, 13-9, 5th, MFSF Tournament champion) at 9 p.m. ET. The semifinal winners will play Saturday at 7 p.m. ET.
Coaches and selected players meet with the media today and had a full practice in Smith Fieldhouse.
Ohio State Press Conference
Moderator: Ohio State University is the No. 4 seed, 16-10 overall in the regular season and 9-1 in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association. They were the regular-season and tournament champions. They will play UC Irvine, the No. 1 seed at 9 p.m. on Thursday. This is their 16th appearance at the NCAA Tournament. We have head coach Pete Hanson, libero Mik Berzins, setter Steven Kehoe and outside hitter Robbie Klein.
Head Coach Pete Hanson: It’s certainly a pleasure to be here. Just like all of the other teams in this tournament, playing to this event is the culminating event for your season. We are fortunate enough to be here for the second time in a row. We are hoping that our experience will help us out. I like the fact that our guys have played well in this last stretch.
Question: Have any of you played at a high-altitude venue, how do you feel about playing here?
Robbie Klein: I haven’t grown up playing at high altitude at all, but since we’ve been here I haven’t noticed any difference.
Question: How do you feel about playing in the tournament two years in a row?
Steven Kehoe: I think we are anxious more than anything. A couple years back we held the tournament at Ohio State, and it was a letdown for us. I would like to think that we are only growing in experience.
Question: What are you doing to get ready for UC Irvine?
Steven Kehoe: UC Irvine is a great team and they are a lot different than most of the teams we play.
Coach Pete Hanson: They spread their offense to their outside hitters. We have watched game film and have seen them a little bit, but they are a great team.
Question: Have you noticed any changes on campus or in the community?
Robbie Klein: I have noticed a little change, but most people in Columbus love their football. We have been receiving a little attention from the campus and if feels good.
Question: How satisfying is it to be here at a national championship? What does that mean to you?
Steven Kehoe: I know for me a lot of what I play for is my teammates. It is great to have fans and your family, but when it comes down to playing on the court, it is my team. Having the opportunity to play for a national championship is gratifying for me.
Robbie Klein: There is a ton of time that you put into it. It sounds kind of clich that we do it for our teammates, but we spend so much time with each other that that is how it is.
Mik Berzins: I feel like our team has really turned our season around and we are excited to be here competing for a national championship. I think it shows how much we care for each other and how hard we have worked with each other.
Question: What has helped you make the turnaround this season?
Mik Berzins: I love that our seniors and our captains have helped us come to play every single day.
Question: UC Irvine has a lot of balance on their team talk about that from a coach’s perspective.
Pete Hanson: You would think that you could focus on one guy that they go to all the time, but UC Irvine is a very balanced team with many different hitters. Their system is pretty well established and if they are in a good pass scenario their guys are going to keep hitting the same shots. Their offense is fairly predictable. All we need to figure out is how to defend those three guys. They are a very good offensive team.
Question: What do you see as an important element on the offensive side of your team?
Pete Hanson: We are a lot like UC Irvine in that aspect that we spread the ball to a lot of different players. We are the only team in the tournament without an All-American, but we have a bunch of guys that play hard and really well together. They play for the good of the team and they don’t care who gets the sets and who gets to swing. We have a freshman libero and hopefully he won’t play like a freshman but like a veteran.
Question: Do you think the altitude will play a role in your adjustment?
Pete Hanson: I haven’t spent enough time training or competing in such an environment, but we’re not going to worry about it. We might tell the guys to take a step back when they are serving, but we’re just going to go out there and play our game. If you let something like that creep into your mindset, you’re worrying about something that you can’t change. If we’re struggling with it we’ll deal with it as it comes, but I don’t have enough personal experience to treat that as an issue.
Question: How are you going to use your time tomorrow?
Pete Hanson: I think we are going go over some game film one more time and a pass and serve practice. I don’t think we need to get them up early or get them pumped up. We just need to keep them relaxed and get them ready to play.
Question: How do you feel about your group playing Penn State?
Pete Hanson: When you play Penn State you have to be really good. They are a team that puts you on your heels with their serves. I would say they are one of the better-serving teams in the tournament.
Question: UC Irvine knows how to play USC and you know how to play Penn State, but how do you feel about playing UC Irvine. I
I think it is better for our guys to play someone different so they don’t have a pre-conceived mindset. It just gives our guys a sense of focusing on the current team, not worrying about past history.
UC Irvine Press Conference
Moderator: UC Irvine was 25-5 overall in the regular season and 19-3 in the MPSF, being regular-season champions. They are the No. 1 seed and will play No. 4 Ohio State Thursday at 9 p.m. in the second semifinal match. This is their third NCAA Tournament appearance in the last four years. They were the national champions in 2007. We have head coach John Speraw; setter Ryan Ammerman, a first-team All-American; opposite hitter, Carson Clark, a second-team All-American; and opposite hitter Taylor Wilson.
Head Coach John Speraw: Obviously we are very excited to be here. When we began this season we were sixth or seventh in the MPSF. We probably weren’t expected by many people to be sitting where we are sitting right now and maybe we didn’t even expect to be sitting here right now. Based on the fall that we had, we had some losses against some of our teams in conference and pre-season matches, but we started winning early and just kept on winning. Over the course of that time we learned how to win ugly early and developed our confidence and developed our game and became a pretty good volleyball team, and at this point we’re still playing great volleyball. We ran into a pretty hot USC volleyball team in the semifinal that played a pretty outstanding volleyball match. It is important to note that we didn’t play particularly bad ourselves; it’s just that SC served the ball so incredibly well in that volleyball match. We were fortunate enough to get the at-large bid and we are excited to be here to see if we can finish this on an up note.
Question: You are the only team to have played on this court this season, how do you look at coming to play the championship here?
Ryan Ammerman: Personally, I’m very stoked about it. Not only did we play here in the pre-season, but also we played here in the fall and in BYU’s last home match. We are very confident in what we know about playing here.
Question: What would you say are your biggest strengths as a team coming into this championship?
Taylor Wilson: I think our biggest strength is team chemistry. We are all really good friends and we hang out a lot and I think that transfers to the court. Each one of us cares a lot about each other and we definitely don’t want to let each other down. I think that’s a big drive about how we win.
Question: How does winning the 2007 national championship experience help you in your play this year?
Taylor Wilson: I think we have a little less nerves than the first time. We were a little younger and a little less experienced and I think we can harness those nerves a little better and step it up and be better examples for this team.
Question: Carson, have you noticed anything different in terms of support with your team winning so often?
Carson Clark: Irvine volleyball is all about family. Not even just within the team, but we have a great amount of fans that help us out. We want to do our best to represent our school to the best of our abilities.
Question: Carson, this is your first time at a national championship, how do you feel about being here?
Carson Clark: We have a great team and I am a little nervous, but nervous is always good. Hopefully I can play my role to the best of my ability and my players can depend on me. Hopefully we can bring home that NCAA Championship.
Question: Is there any team that you’ve played this season that you feel has best prepared you for this tournament?
Ryan Ammerman: I think the matches that we played here in Provo prepared us very well. It is such a different atmosphere in terms of the altitude and how to play the game and the serving/receiving. Just being here and being able to experience that in a non-playoff high-pressure situation is good and hopefully we can translate that in the playoffs and perform at a high level.
Question: Could you talk a little bit more about the chemistry of your team?
Head Coach John Speraw: Having the opportunity to come here and play as we have over the last year, we have been really fortunate in that regard. We have played very well against a great BYU team here last year and this year and we know we can play well in a playoff game here. These guys understand how to play the game it is very different. The press and everyone talk a lot about how different it is to play here and I think it is true. It is very different here and you have to adjust to the altitude. How you serve the ball and how you play at altitude does affect the way you play. I think we have a great advantage playing here.
Question: Do you think not winning the MPSF makes your team extra hungry to win?
John Speraw: I think they were a little stunned to lose that semifinal match against USC. We went out the next day and had a good practice. We had a sense of relief when we got the at-large bid. On Saturday we had a pretty sleepless night to see if we were going to get the bid. I think we’re in a great frame of mind.
Question: What have you done to bring UCI from an average team in the MPSF to a leading team each year?
John Speraw: It’s a pretty broad question because I think there are lots of components to it. I don’t think it’s one secret or one thing. I think there is an incredible team component to the administration and support staff to the way we train and the way our athletic trainers take care of our players. Also the winning attitude of the coaches and support staff all adds to our success as a team. You have to have good players and train them at a high level. It is pretty significant to get here multiple times, and we are happy to be here. There isn’t a long tradition of academic or athletic excellence, but we come to play and we can win a title. This program is something more significant and it is very special.
Question: How much have you really gotten to know Ohio State and the way they play the game?
John Speraw: This year it has been tough. I have played Ohio State or Penn State in just about every year since I have been the coach except for this year. I know a little bit less about these teams than before. I know Ohio State is a pretty well balanced team and I know they are athletic and are the best team in the Midwest. They know that I have tape from west-coast opponents, and they have tape of us playing their opponents, but my guess is that neither of us knows a lot about either team. It will just be about who can learn as quickly as they can to be adaptable and creative and who can play better. We need to go out there and play our game and get our groove back.
Question: Are there any individual players that stand out on your team?
John Speraw: My concern going into this year was that we didn’t necessarily have one guy that we were going to make our team captain. I have had tremendous leadership in the last seven years, and now going into this year, I don’t think you can say who dominates our team. I think it has been collective you will see our collective energy on the court.