Who cares if they hadn't won one before?
The audacious dream came true Saturday night in State College. The Buckeyes, winners of the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association for the fifth straight year and participants in their fourth straight NCAA Final Four, rallied to beat UC Santa Barbara by a 3-2 (20-25, 25-20, 25-19, 22-25, 15-9) score to win the national championship.
The Buckeyes joined the synchronized swimming team as national champions this year, but that is not an NCAA-sponsored sport. OSU won its first NCAA title since fencing in 2008, and the men's volleyball program won its first after making previous finals appearances in 1977 and 2000.
"Incredible," said junior Shawn Sangrey, one of Ohio State's most dominating weapons all season long. "It's so much fun with a cheering section like that, and winning it in front of family and friends is incredible. We are the best team in the country."
Sangrey was nearly unstoppable against the Gauchos, putting up a career-high 32.5 points while making 30 kills and hitting .389. Five other players hit double figures in points while senior Steven Kehoe, a first-team All-American, lived up to his billing by making 65 assists on the way to earning tournament MVP honors.
The Buckeyes also used excellent defense to their advantage. After taking Penn State out of its offense in the semifinal two nights earlier, Ohio State did the same against the Gauchos, limiting UCSB to only 45 kills over five sets and a .198 hitting average. That allowed OSU to overcome 26 service errors – including nine in a nervous first set – and the Buckeyes had 74 kills while hitting .329.
"Wow. This is a great night for Ohio State men's volleyball," 28th-year head coach Pete Hanson said. "First of all, I'd like to congratulate Santa Barbara on a great season. The played hard from start to finish. Our kids weathered a tough start in game one, and we weathered the storm and got to game five. We talked about who was going to work harder and make the critical plays. Thank goodness the guys in scarlet and gray did that."
Ohio State (26-6), which was ranked eighth in the nation coming into the Final Four and seeded third at the event, had UCSB tied at 17 in the first set, but the Gauchos finished the first set on an 8-3 run to take the early lead. However, the Buckeyes were not bothered, having lost the first set for the third time in four postseason matches.
"Since it's been tournament time, we've lost the first set of a number of matches," Kehoe said. "We talk about that in the huddle. I definitely came out tense, and I think a lot of the guys did, especially from the service line. We knew if we stuck to our game plan, we'd be all right. We know how well we can play."
Sangrey had six kills in the second set, including one that gave the Buckeyes the lead for good at 20-19. John Klanac followed with OSU's first ace of the match and the Buckeyes pulled away, with two UCSB errors finishing off the set in the Buckeyes' favor.
OSU kept rolling through the third, opening up a 13-9 lead and never letting the Gauchos get within three the rest of the set. Sangrey again had six kills while sophomore middle blocker Grayson Overman, OSU's youngest starter, added six with no errors.
Ohio State made two crucial attack errors late in the fourth as the Gauchos pulled away for the set win, but the fifth was all Buckeyes. OSU had 11 kills with only one error in 14 chances, with Sangrey finishing off six of his seven chances.
The deciding set was tied at six when senior John Klanac put down a kill, and an error by UCSB extended the OSU advantage to two. The Buckeyes stayed ahead before a Sangrey kill made it 11-9. Santa Barbara followed with an error that gave OSU a three-point lead, then consecutive kills by Sangrey set the stage for the final point.
The Gauchos tried to go to All-American Jeff Menzel, who hit only .025 on the night, but Kehoe, Jason Tobkin and Kevin Heine combined for the title-winning block, slamming the ball to the court on the UCSB side and leading to a huge celebration on the OSU side.
"Well, I got it," Kehoe said of the block. "Menzel was killing us. He didn't hit for a great number, but he's capable of some incredible swings. Our coaching staff told us if we blocked him once in the last five points, we would win the match. It was pretty sweet to make it that last point. I thought the coaching staff did an awesome job throughout game five to keep us steady, and make sure we knew what their offense was going to do."
Klanac finished with 18.5 points for the Buckeyes, while Overman added 15 while hitting .800, Tobkin 13 and Heine 11.5.
Though the title was OSU's first in school history, the Buckeye volleyball program has a long history. The Buckeyes have made 18 NCAA tournaments since 1975, and Hanson was in charge for 10 of those appearances. The legendary coach has also led the Buckeyes to 14 MIVA titles in his tenure.
"I'm just really happy for this team and all the teams that have come before us, and hopefully we've added another element to the Ohio State volleyball legacy," Hanson said. "We're pretty proud of that."