Men’s club volleyball gunning for No. 1 in nation

Twelve years ago, Chandler North was an innocent third grader who’d just recently picked up his first volleyball. As he longingly stared up at the net and tightly hugged the ball with both arms, he dreamed of the day he could leap high in the air and slam down a kill that would bring a packed crowd to its feet.

Today, as the president of the men’s club volleyball team, and an outside hitter known for his ferocious kills, North looks up to the net for a different reason. On the back wall of their practice facility, Rec Court 5, hangs a banner that reads, “Marquette men’s club volleyball national championship, 2005.” It’s the only banner of its kind, and North, alongside the rest of his teammates, wants to change that.

“That banner is motivation,” he said. “Taking pride in playing with the best of the best and seeing that it’s possible makes us want to achieve it more and more.”

Over the last few weeks, they’ve taken big steps toward achieving that dream. Two weeks ago,  they knocked off the number one team in the country and three-time defending national champion, UW-Oshkosh. The next weekend, they made their way to the annual Hoosier Tournament in Bloomington, Indiana — renowned for being the best competition prior to Nationals in April — and slogged their way through a field of 13 ranked teams, including No. 2 Illinois and No. 3 Penn State, for a triumphant and relieving victory.

It was the first time Marquette won the Hoosier Invitational since 2005.

“It was hard,” North said. “Saturday, throughout the day and at night, I was putting in our group chat, ‘Guys, I know today was a little bit sloppy at times, but trust me, we’re so capable of getting hot and running the table tomorrow. Just believe me, this is a major tournament and if there is a tournament to get hot and do this, it’s this one.’”

The previous two seasons, Marquette finished runner-up in this tournament, and they were tired of going home holding second place.

“We call it trust the process,” outside hitter Danny Rivera said. “We made some changes from past years, but the team as a whole has stayed. We knew we could do some big things from the start.”

Rivera is not a typical club volleyball player. The Puerto Rico native earned a fifth place finish for his country in the 2012 Junior World Olympics in London, received offers from schools like UCLA and was handed a full-ride scholarship to Indiana-Fort Wayne.

He turned them all down in favor of academics, and even though he says he sometimes thinks about his potential at a D-1 program, he doesn’t regret his decision. That, he says, is a result of his teammates and the culture of the club volleyball team.

It’s certainly not the straight-laced, hard-nosed culture that he grew up experiencing and training for. During breaks, players will form a makeshift basketball game, chase each other down dodgeball style or cheer on an intramural team on a subsequent court.

At first, Rivera said the transition from his life being volleyball to volleyball simply being an element of his life was hard. But he affirms the casual nature of their team is exactly what makes them successful.

“We are good simply because of chemistry. We go to the court and have fun,” he said. “It gives us confidence, and that makes us play better. We think of ourselves as the fun team beating the No. 1 seeded teams.”

This week, they’ll have a crack at beating a No. 1 seeded team when they challenge UW-Oshkosh in a rematch at the Al McGuire center Thursday, and if they win they could potentially be named the No. 1 team in the country when the next set of rankings are released.

“As we’re getting to the stretch, guys are getting more focused and competitive,” North said. “It’s been my goal to push that line from fun to competitiveness to keep us at the highest level and raising our standards more as the season goes on.”