Blocked and loaded: GCU men’s volleyball on a roll as it prepares for Ohio State in NCAA Tournament

Grand Canyon’s Camden Gianni came up big for his team in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament and led the Lopes in kills all three games. (Photo courtesy of GCU Athletics)

PHOENIX – Giant killers.

For the second time in five years, the Grand Canyon men’s volleyball team knocked off the No. 1 team in the country. The Lopes now join seven other programs in Long Beach, California, for the NCAA Tournament that begins competition Tuesday, with the Lopes taking on Ohio State at 7:30 p.m. MST in the quarterfinals.

“This matchup with Ohio State is going to be really, really good in terms of how comparable our teams are,” coach Matt Werle said. “With the win over UCLA and the experience of being (in the NCAA Tournament) last year, we don’t have to worry about freaking out over the lights and we can just go be us.”

The thrilling and dramatic five-set win victory over the No. 1 ranked Bruins April 20 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament propelled GCU into the NCAA Tournament.

“We were just rolling at a good place,” Werle said. “Our guys were confident and loose going into it.”

The focus entering the conference tournament was “to go take it” and not rely on opponents’ errors, Werle said. The Lopes did just that. They took care of business in the quarterfinals by sweeping seventh-seeded Concordia Irvine 3-0. Then the Lopes defeated fourth-seeded Stanford 3-1 in the semifinals the next night to set up a rematch against the defending national champions.

After a night off, The Lopes and Bruins went back and forth, trading set wins before the Lopes prevailed for just their second ever victory over the top team in the country (they beat No. 1 BYU in 2021). The match was secured on a game-winning kill by sophomore middle blocker Cameron Thorne, who was instrumental in shutting down the MPSF Player of the year: UCLA middle blocker Merrick McHenry.

“It was a great game all the way through. … It’s really hard to stop that type of guy,” Thorne said. “It was a huge challenge to stop him and we were able to slow him down.”

Following the victory, the team enjoyed a week to rest and reset from a physically and mentally draining conference weekend.

The X’s and O’s have been laid out by Werle, who was recently named MPSF Coach of the Year, on the best approach to beat the Buckeyes.

“While we haven’t seen them yet this year, from what we know this team has a lot of the same players that were the team we played last year,” he said. “We are familiar with them and we know they are gonna be good.”

The Buckeyes come into the first round contest against the Lopes winners after capturing the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association championship over Lindenwood.

The stakes are high for this GCU team, which looks to go further than last season’s trip and hopes to claim Saturday’s championship. But Werle has emphasized not putting too much pressure on the team. It was evident during practice as the players were enjoying laughs and listening to the 2010s’ best music.

“We don’t want to stress the significance of the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “That might put a little more pressure and weight to it. We just got to go play volleyball.“

The team spent a recent practice finding the intensity that won it the MSPF title. Helping the Lopes find their groove was senior Camden Gianni, who led the team in kills all three games.

“The tournament was quite a bit of a grind,” Gianni said. “So just being able to get our legs under us, and even today, it was a little more competitive of a practice. It was tough to get some guys going, but we have some business to take care of in Long Beach.”

Tuesday’s game at Walter Pyramid will be the final game of the day and is available to watch on The winner will play host Long Beach State or Belmont Abbey in the semifinals.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Connor Manning expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Manning has interned as a sports play-by-play announcer, play analyst and radio show co-host for Varsity Media Foundation in Phoenix.