When told about the Utah State Men’s volleyball team, you’d be forgiven for reacting with: “Utah State has a men’s volleyball team?”
Known to a mere handful of students, staff and family of those two groups, the club team has shown notable improvements this year as they progress toward the goal becoming a premiere program in club men’s volleyball.
That process could take a big leap Saturday evening when the men’s team will host Utah Valley in the Estes Center in an exhibition game. Though to call the former the host may be a stretch, as the men’s team are as much strangers to playing at the Estes Center as UVU. Up until now, all the home games have been played in the ARC or the HPER, depending on availability.
“I’m excited,” said outside hitter Nikolas Purser about playing in the Estes Center, “playing in a little bigger gym, hopefully a bigger crowd too. It’s different playing in the HPER when it’s just the two teams watching and maybe a few fans there.”
Playing UVU in Logan to begin with is impressive. The Wolverines are one of the top programs in club men’s volleyball that has even bested NCAA powerhouse BYU in the past.
“They’ve been by far the best team in the state and in the conference for many years now,” said team Co-president and setter Christian McKinnon. “So, this year to get them to actually come up here and play us in this kind of exhibition game is a huge deal just because it shows how far we’ve come as far as respect goes. Because if they thought they were just going to wipe the floor with us they wouldn’t bother, but they know that we’re going to give them a good game.”
Utah State has set a high standard for its club teams. The hockey team are a regular national presence with three straight conference titles and the baseball team owns two national championships and three regional titles in the last six years. Building a program like that takes time, and with mostly failures in recent years, the men’s team has a long way to go.
However, McKinnon said this is the year the team can “break through and really make a push to win a conference championship,” after finishing 11th and eighth in the conference in the last two years respectively. In the first conference ranking tournament this season, Utah State finished third.
Building the men’s volleyball program has proven to be quite the challenge for McKinnon and fellow team president Austin McDermott. In addition to rarely being able to play in front of fans, either by being constantly on the road at tournaments or by playing in out-of-the-way gyms, one of the simple, yet challenging, obstacles is finding players to fill out the roster.
According to McDermott, getting committed players has been a challenge in the past, leading to a revamped recruiting process in the Spring of 2017. The new style consists of reaching out to high school coaches in Utah and surrounding states, trying to find talented players who have chosen to come to Utah State for school purposes and then recruit them from there. That has yielded a fair amount of success but has had its fair share of hiccups too.
“The biggest thing that we ran into was people going on LDS missions,” McDermott said. “There’s a lot of talented players that we saw film of and they all just said they were going on LDS missions.”
Losing talented prospects to missions comes with being a school in Utah, but the growth of boys volleyball in the state could eventually give way to a bounty of in-state prospects.
“I think the growth right now with the boys volleyball in the valley is going to help feed into the program down the road,” McDermott said. “I think eventually they’re going to sanction the sport of boys volleyball in high school and that will get a lot more growth for the club.”
Despite the challenges of recruiting and the not-yet-realized potential of boys’ volleyball locally, the men’s volleyball team has managed to nearly double its winning percentage from last year’s 33, to 60 percent this year. Part of that success is due to the return of former head coach Treva McUne.
McUne previously coached the men’s team from 2009 to 2011 but stepped down to have more time with family. During her time off, she also coached high school girls’ volleyball but decided to come back after being approached by the men’s volleyball team.
“We have the same goals on both ends,” McUne said of her decision to return. “I am here to compete basically, and that’s their goal, they want to move forward with the club and move forward and be a little more competitive.”
Both McKinnon and McUne said they didn’t want to “take anything away” from the work of former head coach Eric Rickords and had nothing but good things to say about him. But there are noticeable differences between the two coaching styles.
“Treva is more strict on fundamentals,” McKinnon said. “She’s somebody who’s really pushing our limits and is somebody who has helped us take it to the next level…She expects excellence and expects to compete with the top teams and we’ve followed that mold.”
When it comes to the systematic differences between Rickords and McUne, the latter said her offense had a couple fundamental differences.
“The difference with me is I run a faster offense,” McUne said. “I push the middles more and we’ve had a lot of success just being able to establish our middles and its created more opportunities for all our other hitters.”
Midway through their season, the Utah State men’s volleyball team is 9-6 in official competitions and has high hopes for not just the upcoming exhibition, but for a potential conference championship in 2018.