Pete Hanson didn’t care if UC Irvine knew who would get the opportunity for the clinching kill.

The Ohio State men’s volleyball coach and his team were locked in a five-set struggle in the NCAA quarterfinals on Tuesday night. When the Buckeyes had match point with a 15-14 lead, they were going to rely on Nicolas Szerszen.

“We’re not going to be shy about saying who should be taking the biggest swings in the biggest moments,” Hanson said. “It should be Nic Szerszen. If they want to put three, four or five guys in front of Szerszen, we’re still going to take those odds.”

Szerszen rewarded Hanson’s faith, as usual. His crosscourt kill sealed Ohio State’s victory. The fifth-seeded Buckeyes play top-seeded Long Beach State in the semifinals on Thursday at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles as they aim for their third straight national title.

If the Buckeyes are to pull the upset, Szerszen likely will lead the way. The 6-foot-4 senior from France is the Buckeyes’ career leader in kills, points, service aces and aces per set. He also is third all-time in digs, a testament to his versatility.

This year, the 2016 national player of the year has become being the leader on a team with a lot of new faces.

“It’s definitely a change,” Szerszen said last week.

Hanson said Szerszen has excelled in the role.

“The biggest thing I’ve seen out of Nic Szerszen is that he’s always giving of himself to make the team better, to make the people around him better,” Hanson said.

Setter Sanil Thomas is one of the players Szerszen has mentored.

“He makes me look a lot better than I actually am,” said Thomas, who had a clutch block on the point that preceded Szerszen’s clinching kill. “He really puts the whole team on his back. He plays his best when the game is tight and we need him the most. Some of the kills he has, I’m just like, ‘Did that just happen?’ I’m so honored and blessed to be playing alongside a guy like that.”

Szerszen doesn’t excel just on the court. He has a 3.76 grade-point average in mechanical engineering and is on track to graduate this semester. He has flourished in the classroom despite the fact that English is his third language. French and Polish are his first two. He also is fluent in Spanish.

“He has just been a blessing to coach,” Hanson said. “Great kid in the classroom, great in the community, everything you’d want in a student-athlete.”

A third national title would be the final bow on an illustrious career, but it’s not needed to affirm Szerszen’s resume.

“I don’t think I have to have any regrets,” Szerszen said. “It’s not a given to anyone to win two national championships and (conference) titles along the way. It’s one last ride. Go out and do the best you can. If you give everything on the court and you still lose, it’s fine.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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