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Purdue Volleyball: #11 Volleyball opens season at home this weekend

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Bet you didn't know it was volleyball season!

Purdue won the 2014 Big Ten Championship!
Purdue won the 2014 Big Ten Championship!

I bet you're thinking, "I thought volleyball season was in the fall".  I bet you're also thinking, "Didn't we miss the NCAA tournament, and aren't we still upset about it?"  And of course, you're thinking, "There's no way our volleyball team is ranked 11th in the nation!"

The Purdue Men's Club Volleyball team was just ranked 11th in the first NCVF national polls of the spring season.  After winning the Big Ten Championship in 2014 and having strong showings at nationals in April 2014 and in the fall 2014 season, Purdue is ranked highly and is ready to defend their title this weekend in their first home tournament of the semester.

If you thought I was referring to women's volleyball, then congratulations, you've been clickbaited, and now you're committed to reading more.

Since many of you probably didn't know that competitive men's volleyball was even a real thing, much less that Purdue had a successful team, you'd probably be interested in this team, especially since they're the defending Big Ten Champions, beating Ohio State in the finals of last year's tournament.  The team has a great mix of youth and experience, returning 10 members of last year's A team, while adding two talented freshmen.  Junior outside hitter Chris Bulava and 6th year grad student setter Ryan Verner are coming off of 1st- and 2nd-team All Big Ten seasons last year, respectively.  Senior Mark Hogan and junior Rob St. Claire are arguably the best middle blocker tandem in the conference.  Freshman David Hancock and junior Billy Moisan will both see time at opposite in an effort to replace former All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year Kyle Schwede, who graduated last year.  Freshman libero Kyle Obernesser, who saw lots of time at setter in the fall, is transitioning to libero to replace Brazilian exchange student Caio Santos, who in his short time with the Boilers earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.  Junior outside hitter Sam Balaskas passed on the club presidency at the beginning of this year to focus more on his game, and the depth of the team will be tested at this weekend's long tournament, with players including sophomore outside hitter Hayden Keller, sophomore setter Mark Mir, senior middle blocker Eric Kluge, and junior opposite Devin Burke all sure to see significant time this weekend.

Photo: 6'7" junior outside hitter Chris Bulava is poised to take on more of an offensive workload this season.

This is an exciting team to watch.  The team is tall and athletic with lots of offensive firepower and blocking prowess, plus a passion for the game and a defensive scrappiness that is uncommon amongst club teams.  Don't let the "club" tag fool you, this is a team that takes their game very seriously and is highly competitive, at a near-varsity level.

It's hard to describe the differences between the sport on the men's and women's level, so you're encouraged to come see the team this weekend to understand what I'm talking about, but I'll try to put it to words.  The NCAA Big Ten women's games that many of you are used to watching are at the highest level of women's competition in the country, but the men's game is played at an even higher level, literally.  The net that the men play on is about 8 inches higher than the women's net.  Each point in the women's game typically lasts longer, with more touches on the ball by each team before the point ends.  This puts a lot of emphasis on defense, block coverage, and blocking.  The men's game, conversely, is played so powerfully that many points end after one possession of the ball by one team.  Men's offenses run at such a high octane that a perfect serve-receive pass almost always leads to a kill, which means that the game frequently comes down to who can serve tougher without making errors, and who can pass the ball better to keep their offense in system.  Digging and blocking are still critical though, because slowing down a hitter with a small touch on the block at the net can lead to a much easier defensive play, leading to a better counterattack chance from the offense.  To gain every possible advantage, men's teams frequently make use of back row attackers in system out of the middle-back and right-back areas of the court, to create 4-on-3 attackers to blockers mismatches, which isn't common in the women's game.

Additionally, the club level differs from the varsity level in a lot of ways.  The club team gets most of their funds from dues paid by the players each semester.  Competitions are all tournament-style on weekends, rather than playing single matches multiple times a week.  Club teams play best of 3 sets while varsity teams play best of 5, and many club teams, including Purdue's, don't have a coach and are just run by the players.

The club also fields a B team, which competes in a lower division of the same conference events plus nationals as the A team.  Purdue B started their season last weekend at a MIVA Division II Play Day at IU, where they were a perfect 5-0 in matches including crushing IU on their own court.  Competitive B teams that take the game seriously are hard to come by, and Purdue's is one of the nation's best.

The 2015 Big Ten Men's Volleyball Association Round Robin will be hosted by the Purdue men's team this weekend.  The guys will play 9 matches (!!), one against each other (original) Big Ten team, across Saturday and Sunday in the Gold & Black gyms at the Corec.  The first matches are at 9 AM on Saturday and 8 AM on Sunday, and admission is free for everyone.  For more logistical details about the tournament, check out the club's website at purduemvb.wix.com/main.

The Big Ten is, top to bottom, the best individual conference in the country in men's volleyball.  Purdue's competitors at the top of the rankings include #3 Ohio State, who is good every year and lost nobody from their team last year, #4 Illinois, who is definitely overranked in the initial polls but gets the most talent each year from boy's volleyball programs in Illinois, #6 Wisconsin, who has two of the best defensive players in the country, and unranked Michigan, who has lots of California volleyball talent and size.  Michigan State has a smaller team but is well coached and defensively scrappy, Minnesota has improved every year with all-conference outside hitter Jeff Hochstein, Iowa has revitalized their team this year after losing almost all their players to graduation, Northwestern went 0-9 in the round robin last year but beat Ohio State last fall, and Indiana is coming off conference sanctions for some bad decisions their players made last year.

I encourage you to check out the team's website and Facebook page for details about this weekend's tournament, and to come see what men's volleyball is all about.  Imagine men's basketball, but every play is as aggressive as a monster dunk or block, "IU sucks" chants are still completely acceptable, and it's the ultimate team sport since one player can't touch the ball for more than an instant.  That's what Purdue Men's Volleyball is all about.