SIOUX CITY -- There’s nothing like playing in the AMC/GPAC/KCAC Conference, where championship-caliber men’s volleyball teams dwell and the action is always intense.
It’s perhaps the toughest men’s volleyball conference in the NAIA ranks. Case in point, the semifinals of last week’s league tournament hosted by No. 1-ranked Missouri Baptist at St. Louis.
There, the top team in the country posted a five-set victory over No. 7 Park, the defending national champion and followed with a three-game sweep in the finals over No. 4 Ottawa, the team that in the semifinals had swept No. 3 Briar Cliff.
“We see the best teams in the nation twice in conference play,” said Briar Cliff Coach Trevor Schirman, whose fourth-seeded 15-4 team will make their national tournament debut at 10 a.m. Tuesday, facing fifth-seeded Lourdes (21-6) in a Pool A match during the NAIA Men’s Volleyball Invitational at the Charles S. Johnson Wellness Center on the Grand View College campus in Des Moines.
“We are accustomed to and comfortable playing against the best. We are extremely lucky to have such quality opponents right here in our conference. Nothing should surprise us at nationals. The amount of difference between the No. 1 and No. 8 (seeded) teams at this point is minimal, so yes, they are very comparable to our top conference teams.”
Composed of squads from the Great Plains Athletic Conference, the American Midwest Conference and the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference, the AMC/GPAC/KCAC has the largest representation in the eight-team national tournament with three teams. Like Ottawa, Briar Cliff reached the event with one of the three at-large bids.
Briar Cliff is the only at-large team in its pool. Lourdes (Ohio), a national participant for the second straight year, advanced as the winner of the California Pacific/Golden State Athletic/Wolverine-Hoosier Conference Tournament while eighth-seeded St. Andrews (19-6), a tournament first-timer, won the Appalachian/Mid-South/River States/Sun Belt Tournament.
Schirman said both Lourdes and St. Andrews (N.C.) match up well against the Chargers and run similar offenses. He hopes the unforced errors which occurred in the 3-0 and 3-1 losses to Missouri Baptist (the 2016 national champion) don’t occur because to him, it will take a 2-1 Pool A record to advance to Friday’s semifinals against the Pool B contenders, a group led by tournament host and No. 2 seed Grand View (19-4) and third-seeded Ottawa (21-7), teams that have made three and two national appearances, respectively.
With that in mind, Schirman saw last week’s practices offer intensity that he hadn’t seen all season.
“There is an edge to our practices now that wasn’t there just a week ago,” said Schirman. “The men know what is at stake and they are pushing each other. We’re focusing on limiting unforced errors. That is one aspect of our game that needs improvement. We had far too many unforced errors in the conference semifinal against Ottawa. I know we will never play error-free, but it’s like turnovers in basketball. Too many usually spells defeat.”
Second in the nation with an average of 13.3 kills per set, Briar Cliff is led offensively by 6-foot-4 senior outside hitter Peyton Schirman’s 274 kills, an average of 4.28 per set, which ranks fourth nationally. The son of the BCU coach has 11 consecutive double-digit kill efforts and is averaging 4.51 per game in that stretch.
Ivan Triufunovic, a 6-3 junior outside hitter, has 223 kills for Briar Cliff while 6-6 senior right side/middle blocker Jackson Lenoir has 117 kills. Junior setters Enrique Barajas and Jacob Ewart have 418 and 364 assists, respectively.
“Enrique is a very athletic and dynamic setter,” said Schirman. “He has the ability with his speed, to get to every good or bad pass. His quickness was key to our victory a few weeks ago against Park. He got to errant passes in the fourth and fifth sets that other setters would never have a chance at.”
The 6-3 Ewart has also recorded 109 kills. Nate Saksa, a 6-6 senior middle blocker has a team-high 58 blocks while 6-foot Dax Johannsen, a freshman from Sutherland, Iowa, has 35 blocks while the back row is paced by 5-9 junior libero Noah Marasco-Ayau’s 217 digs.