The Pepperdine University men’s volleyball team needed to win three matches on the road to earn a berth into the NCAA Championships. The Waves will play in Irvine this week as they go for their sixth national title.
By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor
For the second consecutive season, the Pepperdine University men’s volleyball team is headed to the NCAA Championships, volleyball’s version of the Final Four. But the road to get there this season is far different than it was a year ago. While in 2007, the Waves entered the Final Four with just two losses and ranked first in the nation, this year’s squad suffered through a disappointing 13-10 regular season and needed a conference championship to earn a berth.
“Both years it was amazing to make the Final Four,” said junior opposite Paul Carroll. “It’s just a little different. For me, maybe this year is a little bit better because we weren’t expected to go. The way we pulled it out was a real team effort.”
The underdog Waves entered the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament last week as the fifth seed, needing to win all the matches on the road to capture the conference crown. The team’s first match was against arch-rival UCLA, who had beaten the Waves in both regular season meetings. Pepperdine won the match, 3-1. The team then swept Long Beach State, a team ranked first in the nation most of the year, in the tournament semifinals at the 49ers home court. This set up a Saturday championship match with BYU, another squad that had beaten Pepperdine in both regular season matches.
The championship match was a comeback for the ages. After losing the first two games, Pepperdine returned with three consecutive wins to complete the upset, 3-2 (28-30, 28-30, 32-30, 30-27, 15-8).
“It was really meaningful because we struggled all year,” said senior setter Jonathan Winder, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player. “It is like a Cinderella story from March Madness.”
Winder said when the team fell behind 2-0, nobody panicked because the squad had been playing well.
“We just said ‘Waves in five,’ we kept saying it,” Winder said.
Joining Winder on the all-tournament team were Carroll and junior outside hitter J.D. Schleppenbach.
The Waves will meet Long Beach State for the fourth time this season on Thursday in the national semifinals. The 49ers earned a berth as the lone wild card. If Pepperdine can win, the team will face the winner of Ohio State/ Penn State in the national title match on Saturday.
When asked about what winning Pepperdine’s sixth national title would mean, Schleppenbach said, “Just asking that question makes me get goose bumps. I just can’t imagine. I’m trying not to think ahead and trying to stay focused.”
Schleppenbach’s one match at a time attitude is shared by all his teammates. It is a philosophy taught to them by head coach Marv Dunphy, who is in his 26th season heading the squad.
“I looked at this season as a challenge,” Dunphy said. “We had four new guys [in the lineup] and then Paul [Carroll] breaks his wrist. Some could look at it and say it’s sad. But it is what it is. You do the best you can. I can’t heal his wrist but I can make those young guys older. And now they’re veterans. They’re young guys, but they’ve been through the wars now.”
Dunphy said this team improved as the season progressed. He said he does not feel any different entering the Final Four this year as an underdog as opposed to last season when the Waves were the favorite.
“The deal is no matter how you get there, you want to be there,” Dunphy said. “But also you want to be good when you get there.”
As for whether this year’s squad will be winning the national title, Dunphy said, “We think that there are standards to be met in almost everything we do. When we meet those standards, it puts us in a position to compete for a championship. It’s really an honor people in the university community expect us to be good.”
Pepperdine will face Long Beach State on Thursday at approximately 8 p.m. The match will be preceded by the other semifinal between Penn State and Ohio State at 6 p.m. The championship match will take place on Saturday at 4 p.m. All matches will take place in Irvine. For ticket information, call 949.824.5000. All NCAA Championships matches will be shown live on ESPN2.