Nicolas Szerszen had his sister’s word. That was all he needed.
Szerszen was a boy in France when Anna Szerszen was a star women’s volleyball player for Ohio State from 2006-10.
“My sister played here and I wanted the same thing as her,” Szerszen said Friday as the Buckeyes prepared for tonight’s NCAA men’s volleyball championship match against Brigham Young. “I wanted to study mechanical engineering and play volleyball at a high level. You can’t do that in France. You have to choose between playing pro or (attending college).
“My sister went here and I’d never visited the U.S. She said it was great there, and I took her word for it.”
The Buckeyes are fortunate he did. The junior outside hitter’s ability to take over matches, particularly as a server, has been instrumental in Ohio State’s success as they try to win back-to-back titles.
The first-team All-American leads the country in aces per set with .65. He has 75 in all, and many of them have come in clutch moments. In Thursday’s semifinal victory over Hawaii, Szerszen had four aces in the second set that broke open a tight match.
“He gets that look in his eye and gets that determination behind the service line,” Ohio State coach Pete Hanson said, “and I’ve seen him literally win games and win sets by himself.”
He said that in a regular-season match at Grand Canyon, the Buckeyes played poorly and led only 11-10 in the fifth set.
“No. 9 rolled into the service corner and four points later, we walk out of there with a ‘W,’” Hanson said. “They didn’t get the ball across the net.”
Szerszen said his serves have been clocked as fast as 72 mph. BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said he knows that preventing Szerszen from getting on a roll will be crucial.
“When you’ve got someone who’s that assertive from the service line, you’re not looking to get perfect,” Olmstead said. “You’re not looking to get anywhere near perfect. We’re just looking to play the ball and give us a fighting chance.”
Szerszen’s serving prowess is helped by his 6-foot-4 frame, but he said it was honed in countless hours of work with his father, a former volleyball pro.
“I put the work into it,” Szerszen said. “It’s not really a gift. It didn’t really fall from the sky.”
Though Szerszen’s serving and spiking ability are invaluable, his humility is what endears him to his teammates and coach.
“I live with him so I know him really well,” Buckeye sophomore Blake Leeson said. “He’s a unique individual because he’s one of the most unselfish people you’ll ever meet. For how good he is, he could be as cocky as he wanted to be, and you just don’t see that, which is a really attractive quality in him.”
Szerszen wants to blend in with his teammates, not be considered the star.
“I just want to play for my team,” he said. “If I can do what I do with a team spirit and share it with my teammates, that’s the most important to me. I don’t want to win on my own. I want to win with my team.
“I don’t want to be the cocky guy or (say) I’m the best. I don’t say that because one day I might have a bad game and that won’t be the case.”
Szerszen hasn’t just shined on the court. He said he has a 3.72 grade point average.
“I was kind of scared at the beginning because my English wasn’t perfect,” Szerszen said of his freshman year. “I thought, how am I going to study physics and math in English?”
He figured it out quickly, just as he has with volleyball.
“It’s crazy the things he can do,” Leeson said. “It’s almost not human at times, which we saw (against Hawaii). It lets everyone else play relaxed. He brings something to the team that you honestly can’t put a price tag on.”