Purdue's last Big Ten title in any sport didn't come from where you'd expect. The last two, in fact, came from the Purdue Men's Volleyball team, who won the Big Ten Championship tournaments 2014 and 2015. A senior-dominated team is back for another year, hoping for a third straight Big Ten title as well as a national championship.
Last year's title came as a surprise to many. Purdue had just graduated one of the best players in the nation, opposite Kyle Schwede, and wasn't expected to contend with teams like Ohio State or Wisconsin. Freshmen libero Kyle Obernesser and opposite Dave Hancock made a huge impact in last year's Big Ten tournament en route to beating Indiana, Northwestern, national #3 and previously undefeated Ohio State, and Minnesota for their second straight championship. A third place MIVA finish and program-best fifth place NCVF Nationals finish capped off the 2015 season.
This year, there will be no flying under the radar. The fall season saw Purdue in the finals of multiple tournaments and drawing lots of attention from clubs across the nation. The preliminary NCVF national rankings of the season have Purdue at #12, which to many is too low, but highly ranked Midwest teams like #1 Illinois, #2 and reigning national champions UW-Oshkosh, #5 UW-Milwaukee, and #9 Wisconsin know Purdue is a team to be feared. Only two key positions needed to be filled from last year's team, and young players are stepping up to play big roles on this year's team.
6'6" sophomore Dave Hancock has transitioned to middle blocker to fill one hole left by graduation, and junior setter and club president Mark Mir has elevated his game significantly to set the offense formerly run by sixth year grad student Ryan Verner. Sophomore libero Kyle Obernesser returns as the reigning defensive player of the year in the Big Ten. Honorable mention All-American outside hitter Chris Bulava returns for his senior year as the Boilers' biggest offensive threat. Senior opposite Billy Moisan, now firmly a top player in the conference, seeks to improve on a stellar fall season. Veteran middle blocker Rob St. Claire and outside hitter Sam Balaskas return to the starting lineup for the fourth straight year with championship aspirations.
This team has depth, which will be tested at this weekend's marathon tournament of nine matches in two days. Junior outside hitter Hayden Keller, while undersized at 6'0", had an explosive fall season. Andrew Birky, a junior outside hitter from Indiana, made a huge impact on the A team in the fall after being a standout at nationals on the B team level the past two years. Senior opposite Devin Burke is playing the best volleyball of his career. Senior setter Mike Noyes is back from injury after an All-American season for Purdue B last year and provides veteran experience to the setting position. The lone freshman is Michal Mierzwa, a middle blocker with great speed and crafty offensive skills.
This weekend's tournament is the first step in the championship defense process. Purdue will play each of the other 9 (original) Big Ten teams on Saturday and Sunday, February 13 and 14 in the gorgeous Corec facility on Purdue's campus. The Round Robin is used for seeding for the championship tournament in March, and gives a chance for each team to play every other team in the top individual conference in the nation.
Illinois comes into the weekend ranked #1 nationally, after a dominant fall season where they beat Purdue in the finals of the IU and Purdue tournaments, and won the esteemed Michigan State Hardwood Classic. #9 Wisconsin, a perennial nemesis for Purdue, lost a few key players to graduation but rebuilt quickly to have a great fall season. #20 Indiana is having their best season in years, but it remains to be seen if they can compete with the upper echelon of the Big Ten. #24 Ohio State graduated 4 of 7 starters, including 3 All-Americans, and are definitely in rebuilding mode. Last year's Big Ten runner-up Minnesota is mysteriously unranked, but returns their whole starting lineup and are a wild card to win the whole conference this year. Michigan State lacks some of the talent from previous years but is well coached. Michigan has great size and veteran leadership, but is a very up or down kind of team. Northwestern has improved every year and returns most of last year's starters. Iowa had a down year last year but has a lot of Chicago-area talent. Anyone in the league can beat anyone else in a given match, and we're sure to see a handful of wild upsets this weekend.
Since so few schools nationwide have varsity men's volleyball teams, collegiate club volleyball is played at an extremely high level. These are dedicated athletes who take the game very seriously, and the men's volleyball game is criminally underrepresented in the national sports scene. Purdue's team is no exception; the two championships only fuel the desire for a third and the team has been practicing harder than ever to work towards it. Men's volleyball is a fast, physical, exciting game. You won't regret coming out for a match or two this weekend.
You're encouraged to check out the links for this weekend's tournament and follow the team throughout their season. Purdue will be in action all across the Midwest, including NCVF Nationals in Louisville in early April. We hope you give the team some support and find out what men's volleyball is all about!
Tournament Facebook Page, with up-to-the-minute tournament info for the Round Robin
Club Facebook Page, the best place to find club news
Club Website, with weekend and semester tournament schedule