Still-young volleyball program at GCU setting new records

Getting a new college sports program off the ground is a difficult task, even if it’s not at the Division I level and not a major sport.  But the men’s volleyball program at Grand Canyon University appears ready to move past the start-up phase.

The program is just beginning its fourth season and is already under its second head coach.  On top of that, it finished in seventh place in the conference last year and was picked in the pre-season polls to suffer a similar fate this year.

There are only seven teams in their conference.

But the Division II college in Phoenix  just set a new school record by winning its fifth consecutive game when it beat California’s Hope International on the road.

And it isn’t occupying the conference cellar right now.  As the schools get ready for play in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA), teams are ranked by their overall records and the Antelopes are holding on to second place, thanks to their 5-2 start.

The MIVA is a mixture of D-I and D-II programs that includes teams from Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio.  GCU is the lone Arizona representative.

Another good sign:  the ‘Lopes also notched what could be considered the program’s biggest win to date.  They knocked of UC San Diego, 3-0, to pick up their first-ever win over a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) opponent.

The MPSF includes schools like UCLA, USC, and Pepperdine and has six of its schools ranked in the nation’s Top 15.  For Grand Canyon, a MPSF win  represents a step up to the next level.

But when the season began, things didn’t look that promising.  The ‘Lopes stepped out to two straight losses, getting beat twice by University of the Pacific.  And then the win streak got started with a road win against UC Santa Cruz and then three straight wins at home in their new arena.

The victory over UC San Diego on Sunday tied the program’s longest win streak at four and then the Hope International win yesterday broke new ground for the young program.

“With five being our longest (win) streak, it shows the youth of our program,” admitted head coach, Jeremy Price, after the last win.  “But to do it the first time is pretty exciting for this team – and the best part is I feel they’ve got better each week.”

Chris Lockwood, a sophomore middle hitter from California, had nine kills against Hope International, and a .692 hitting percentage.  A couple of other players also had nine kills: middle hitter Ryan Mather and outside hitter Jordon Tarantino.

And Mather, who leads the MIVA in blocks, added a team-high seven block assists to the winning effort.

When Price took over as head coach last year, he suffered through an 8-24 season that included an 0-12 league record.  But his influence is beginning to show results.

He also added a former national player of the year to his staff in August, which is providing a role model for success for his players.  Matt Werle was a four-time All-American and Division III National Player of the Year in 2007, and also was Team USA’s starting setter for the 2007 Junior World Championships.

Werle played for Price when Price was the head coach at Juniata College in Pennsylvania.  Together, they led the school to two D-III national titles.

Now they’re together again and focused on replicating that success in Division II.

(Photo: GCU Athletics/ Jak Keyser)