CHICAGO – After having never won more than 12 matches in a season during its initial nine years as a program, Saint Xavier University’s men’s volleyball team hoped to have a breakthrough season with the hiring of Tom Ryan as their new head coach.
And two area athletes have been the beneficiaries of an amazing story for the 20-7 team from Chicago’s Mt. Greenwood that got hot when it counted to earn its first appearance in the Men’s Volleyball National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics National Championship, which runs from April 16 to 20 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Junior Ben Gabor, a Joliet Catholic Academy graduate, is in his third season with the Cougars and junior Andrew Bergstrand, a Lincoln-Way Central graduate, transferred to SXU this season after starting his college career at North Central College in Naperville.
Gabor, a Shorewood native and a hospitality management major, enjoyed his best season at SXU after moving from a middle blocker to a rightside hitter. He leads his team with a school-record 350 kills, which ranks sixth in the NAIA, and has a .221 hitting percentage, 132 digs, 54 blocks and 17 aces. For his efforts, Gabor was a second-team All-CCAC selection.
“We have a new coach and practically a new team,” Gabor said. “Our coach really understands how to coach every individual player, so it feels like we have been playing together for quite some time now; it doesn’t feel like this is our first season together. The four returners have built great chemistry throughout the years. Our setter Aaron [Kummer] and I have a connection after two years. Everyone is high-IQ volleyball so they know what to do.”
Bergstrand, a New Lenox native, transferred to Saint Xavier so that he could pursue a master’s degree in computer science. The middle blocker goes into the tournament with 131 kills, a .280 hitting percentage, a team-high 65 blocks and 18 aces.
“A teammate at North Central knew that I had an extra year of eligibility, so he persuaded me to think about other options,” Bergstrand said. “I did some open gyms at Saint Xavier with the new coach and that’s where it started, and I’m very happy with the transfer and the results of it. What’s really neat about this team is that everyone has a really good relationship with everyone on the team and the atmosphere of this team is like a family, honestly.”
Ryan, a 2014 Saint Xavier graduate who also played for the Cougars, was a graduate assistant at Quincy University last year. He inherited a Saint Xavier program that had gone 67-153 for a .305 winning percentage in its initial nine seasons.
But the new coach saw his team win eight straight games early on to improve to 10-2 and later used a 10-3 streak to advance to their quarterfinal appearance against top-seeded Missouri Baptist University at 4 p.m. Tuesday. One day later, they’ll play Grand View University at 7 p.m. and will face fifth-seeded Park University at 4 p.m. Thursday.
The Cougars upset the the top-seeded hosts and 10th-ranked St. Ambrose University in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Tournament finals to advance to nationals.
Missouri Baptist (28-0) was ranked first in the Coaches’ Final 10 poll and is the No. 1 seed in the event. Grand View (18-1) was ranked fourth and Park (20-4) was fifth, and they were seeded in those same spots. Saint Xavier is the eighth-seed and ranked 10th in the final poll.