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A rugged losing assignment in the 2018 season opener for the Barton College men’s volleyball team left coach Jeff Lennox anything but discouraged.
Grand Canyon University of Tempe, Arizona, and the NCAA Division I ranks dealt the Bulldogs of the Division II Conference Carolinas a 25-20, 17-25, 25-18, 25-21 loss Thursday evening in Wilson Gymnasium.
The Lopes, preseason-ranked No. 15 nationally among Division I-II teams, were also serving into their season and as new members of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. Only a loss to Ohio State in the tournament finals prevented Grand Canyon from advancing into the final six last season.
Barton, the reigning Conference Carolinas king and the only Div. II team in the final six, unveiled a lineup that featured two newcomers in redshirt-sophomore setter Oscar Florentino and freshman libero Wilfredo Rivera.
“We held our own,” declared Lennox. “We saw some good things and good learning moments. They’re a good Division I team and we’re a good team. It’s early and we’re still figuring stuff out. Stuff is all new to us. We’ll get better; we’re not close to where our potential is.”
The Bulldogs were their sharpest in claiming the second set. But the edge in superiority belonged to the Lopes the third and fourth sets. Maybe Grand Canyon needed a couple of sets to shake off what was a new experience — frolicking in the snow and below-freezing temperatures — for many of the players.
“They were freaking out,” noted 6-foot-5 junior Will Schwob, a product of Annapolis, Maryland, and no stranger to snow and the cold. “I had to teach them how to make snowballs.”
The second set saw Barton junior Aleksa Brkovic emerge with his serving and hitting. From a 9-9 deadlock, the Bulldogs spurted to 13-10 and 16-12 leads. Brkovic’s kill extended Barton’s margin to 20-15. Two Lopes service errors closed the set.
But Grand Canyon returned to effective blocking the final two sets. After three ties, the Lopes seized the third-set lead for keeps, building 7-4, 14-10 and 17-12 margins.. Grand Canyon was not seriously threatened the rest of the set as Barton was hampered by service errors. Schwob’s kill and a Barton attack error ended the set.
After four ties, the Lopes spurted to a 7-4 margin in the fourth set and extended it to 10-5 with strong blocking. The Bulldogs, behind Brkovic, trimmed a 21-14 deficit to 21-17 before 6-6 senior Shaley Saada’s kill stopped the comeback bid. A kill from 6-4 senior Cody Williams, an ace from 6-5 redshirt-freshman David Kisiel, who had just debuted, and, appropriately, Schwob’s kill ended the match.
The Lopes bounced back from an ankle injury to 6-6 junior Alex Shmelev in the opening set.
“We came together and played for each other,” Schwob declared. “Cody Williams took some big swings and we started serving a lot tougher. We passed really good and took care of their serves. Caleb Blazer (6-7 sophomore) came in and did a good job for (Shmelev).
“We knew they were going to be a really good team — they were in the national tournament last year. We had to play our game and play at our speed.”
Schwob sparkled with a match-high 18 kills. Williams pounded down 15. Redsirt-senior Puna Kaniho notched 45 assists, while senior Sky Engleman supplied nine digs.
The opening set was marked by 10 ties. Barton’s first deadlock came at 10-10 on impressive-starting 6-6 sophomore Angelos Mandilaris’ kill and the Bulldogs first led at 12-11 on 6-8 junior Nick Leary’s block.
With the score knotted at 20-20, the Lopes responded with five unanswered points, including Schwob’s kill and a tip and kill from red-shirt senior Cullen Mosher.
Barton got 12 kills each from Brkovic, Angelos Mandilaris and junior Vasilis Mandilaris. Florentino debuted with 41 assists. Rivera and Vasilis Mandilaris each managed six digs. Leary registered six blocks aand Brkovic five.
The Lopes claimed a 19-18 edge in blocks and committed 13 service errors as compared to 16 for Barton.
“We played well,” Lennox summarized. “We have a lot of special players. The biggest thing was stringing together points. They did a good job of blocking us out of our system.”
Barton returns to action on Jan. 13 with a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, for the Grow the Game Challenge and a test against No. 5-ranked Hawaii.