PHOENIX – For the first time in program history, the Grand Canyon University men’s volleyball team punched its ticket to the NCAA Men’s National Collegiate Volleyball Championship.
Lopes coach Matt Werle and his team dominated the regular season before falling short to top-seeded UCLA in the semifinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championship on April 20.
Still, their resume was worthy of securing the program’s first tournament bid.
“It was very emotional,” Werle said of earning an at-large bid. “To see these guys achieve something that we have been striving for the program, for years and years and seeing some of these older guys that have been a part of the team for four or five years.
“To get to this moment in their careers, some of them in their final year of playing, it’s emotionally exciting. I’ve shed some tears behind the scenes.”
The Lopes face Long Beach State Tuesday in the seven-team tournament at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
Realizing it’s his last year, senior outside hitter Christian Janke has put a tremendous amount of effort into the team this season.
“I told the team, this is my last shot,” Janke said. “I will give you everything that I possibly have, this being my last series of games. It’s really special. You can’t really write a better story than that.
“Everything I’ve tried to accomplish over the past four years, and the legacy I’m going to try to leave, ending with this moment, is really fulfilling.”
Now that Werle and the team have put the emotion of achieving the bid behind them, they look forward to preparing for their meeting with Long Beach State..
“We didn’t see them in the regular season, we’ve seen them in Las Vegas the last two falls,” Werle said. “We matched up our lineups against one another and these guys truly believe and know that we can compete with them.”
Werle’s players are familiar with facing tough opponents throughout their time at GCU thanks to his strategic move to compete against the best teams.
“The experience that this group has, they’ve battled,” Werle said. “Their first year I threw them to the wolves, it was the hardest schedule that we have ever had and it was just a matter of getting these guys to understand that they can compete at the highest level possible.”
The team’s comradery has also led to this season’s historic success. Janke and outside hitter Camden Gianni, in particular, have built a culture around the team, and their bond has become unbreakable.
“The camaraderie and chemistry between the guys and the closeness we’ve developed is the best I’ve seen in the last five years,” Janke said. “Our success is a testament to that and I don’t think we come back in those close games without that kind of bond.”
Added Gianni: “We’ve all been super close and the communication has been top tier. There’s guys that will chirp, and I’m one of those guys that will chirp across the net and just try to make everyone better. We’re all family and we’re working towards the same goal.”
Werle has made it his mission to instill the “all for one” culture within the team the entire season. Now heading into the tournament, he expects the team’s family values to remain.
GCU’s tournament bid is something Werle believes will help build the program into something bigger and better.
“We’re hoping that this is obviously going to be an ongoing thing,” he said. “Something that we’re at annually. That experience can be passed along. This will help us recruit. Obviously, the more success we have, the better players we’re able to get our hands on over the years.
“Hopefully, this is something we can sustain.”
The match will start at 2 p.m. MST and will be streamed on ESPN+.