At the start of the Pepperdine Waves men’s volleyball team’s season redshirt freshman middle blocker JT Ardell wasn’t seeing much action on the court for the Waves. Now, over a month later, he is the reigning Mountain Pacific Sports Federation/Molten Defensive Player of the Week.
What a difference time—and stifling a ton of opponents’ attempts to put points on the board—make.
Waves head coach David Hunt said Ardell’s defensive prowess is something to be reckoned with.
“JT has a good feel for blocking,” he said. “Some guys just know, ‘When the set goes outside, here is where I should put my hands,’ and he has a feel for that. He is a big strong kid, so when he puts his hands on the other side of the net usually good things happen for us.”
Ardell was named the federation’s defender of the week on Feb. 17 after he tallied a total of 16 blocks in eight sets to aid Pepperdine in winning two MPSF matchups. Ardell posted seven blocks in the Waves’ 3-2 win over Concordia on Feb. 12. Two days later, he had nine blocks, the second highest in the federation this year at press time, in the Waves’ 3-0 victory over USC. The matches were the Illinois native’s first two starts of the season. Ardell received almost zero playing time in the Waves’ first six games of the season before coming off the bench in Pepperdine’s Feb. 9 loss to BYU.
Hunt said Pepperdine coaches talk a lot with Ardell and his teammates about being prepared to contribute to the Waves’ game plan on the court.
“He was ready and he made the most of it,” Hunt said.
Heading into Wednesday’s home game against the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (6-5), Pepperdine is on a two-game losing streak. The squad was downed by UCSB, 3-0, on Feb. 21 and 3-1 by Grand Canyon on Feb. 23.
Pepperdine’s loss to Santa Barbara was the first time they were swept this season. The Gauchos won, 25-19, 25-21, 25-23. Senior outside hitter Noah Dyer led Pepperdine with 11 kills and three blocks, while junior middle blocker Austin Wilmot recorded eight kills. Ardell posted four blocks and two service aces, and freshman setter Joe Karlous had 26 assists, five digs and three blocks.
Pepperdine won its first set against Grand Canyon, 25-17, but then lost the next three sets, 25-22, 25-23, 25-17. Redshirt freshman opposite Jacob Steele had 12 kills and six digs for Pepperdine. Dyer had 11 kills and five digs, and Ardell tallied nine kills and six blocks. Junior outside hitter Alex Gettinger had eight kills and six digs, and Karlous recorded 33 assists and 11 digs.
A day after the Grand Canyon game, Hunt wasn’t hanging his head over the two road losses. He said the Gauchos are a group of talented and seasoned volleyball players and noted that if the Waves played a smidgen crisper in two sets against Grand Canyon, they would have left with a victory. Hunt said the loss to Grand Canyon and a road loss to BYU earlier this season were both games against squads positioned higher than Pepperdine in the MPSF standings.
“They’re good measuring sticks for when we come back and train to get better,” the coach said.
Pepperdine’s 21-member roster features only four upperclassmen and 11 redshirt—or “true”—freshmen. In fact, the team has six new starters from a year ago, so each game is an experience the Waves need under their collective belt because the group is teaming with highly skilled volleyball players that haven’t played a lot of college volleyball yet, said Hunt.
“There are off plays you don’t necessarily script for,” he explained. “In football, the analogy would be things break down and the quarterback scrambles, so then Patrick Mahomes or Russell Wilson finds a way to make a play. That just comes from experience and high IQ. Our guys have the athleticism, but we don’t have the experience … To win tough matches on the road you got to make all the plays you are supposed to make and some plays you aren’t supposed to.”
Hunt said the onus is on him and other Waves coaches to keep the players focused on getting better each day and reiterated the things the bunch excels at.
“You have to keep your guys engaged and keep them motivated,” he said.
The top Wave said there have been times this season, such as the first set against Grand Canyon, the third set against UCSB and a set against BYU, where Pepperdine has played stellar volleyball that shows their potential. These spans featured the Waves putting points on the board and defensively preventing their opponents from gaining momentum by scoring point after point after point consecutively.
“There are stretches of time where we do things really well,” Hunt said. “They know they are right there and have the ability. They want to just do it at a higher rate and more frequently.”
The Waves started the season with consecutive wins over Cal Lutheran, Daemen and Harvard before they lost games to George Mason and Long Beach State. Pepperdine beat Stanford before losing to BYU and winning the two straight that were powered by Ardell’s block parties.
The squad has 11 contests between this week’s lone matchup and the April 11 regular-season final against Stanford. Hunt said this is part of the schedule team’s wanting to be great, but that success doesn’t happen with a swat of an opponent’s ball or thunderous spike over the net. He said the Waves must fight the urge to “want to be great today versus understanding that we need to be great for 10 days in a row to ultimately be great.”
“I’m proud of the way the guys come in and compete every day,” Hunt added. “We just need to keep that going.”