Even after two disappointing seasons, Aaron Kummer knew the potential for this year’s St. Xavier University (SXU) men’s volleyball team.

A new coach, Tom Ryan, had brought renewed energy to the program. Kummer headlined a strong returning veteran core, and a wave of new players was ready to contribute.

For the Cougars, a breakout season wasn’t just a possibility; it was an attainable goal.

On April 6, SXU earned a berth at nationals after defeating powerhouse St. Ambrose in straight sets to win the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference (CCAC) tournament championship.

“The past few years, we haven’t been as successful,” Kummer said. “My focus going into the year was to do something special. I wanted to make the volleyball team known at St. Xavier. With the group of guys around me, everyone has done their part.”

Kummer is a St. Cajetan and Marist graduate.

SXU (20-7) opened play at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) National Tournament against top-seeded Missouri Baptist University on April 16 in Des Moines, after press time.

The eighth-seeded Cougars are scheduled to continue pool play on April 17 versus Grand View University and April 18 against Park University

The top two teams from each pool of four will advance to the semifinals on April 19, with the national championship on April 20.

With nasty opponents in a tough pool bracket, freshman Kyle Springer (Br. Rice) said the Cougars are ready to make some noise.

“Anything can happen,” Springer said. “A team can have an off day, or we just go in and beat them. We know we can go in there and play our hardest, maybe upset a team and make a run.”

The 2018-19 season has been the first championship season for men’s volleyball in the NAIA after growing from an emerging sport. A sport needs 40 varsity teams to become a championship sport.

For the Cougars, their breakout season couldn’t have come at a better time. In the program’s first nine seasons, SXU had never finished above .500. The previous high win total was in 2014-15 when the team went 12-15.

Ryan is a 2012 SXU alumnus with previous coaching experience at Quincy, Prairie State and Moraine Valley.

Hired last summer, Ryan found his groove quickly at his alma mater, building a quick recruiting class around the Cougars’ returning players.

“Getting the job really late, I only had a couple pieces, so I hustled to put it together quickly,” Ryan said. “They’ve taken to me really well. It’s a group with a ton of heart. It worked piece by piece. I was pretty bullish about what we had, but I wanted to see it first.”

Piling up wins during the regular season, SXU squared off with St. Ambrose for the CCAC championship. The Cougars lost twice to the Bees this season, both in 3 sets.

Erasing the regular-season struggles, SXU dominated host St. Ambrose 25-21, 25-23, 29-27 to clinch the national berth.

“We never took a set off them in the regular season,” Kummer said. “To go out there and take care of business on their home court was one of the best feelings I’ve had so far in my volleyball career.”

A three-year starter at setter, Kummer (991 assists) has kept the offense clicking. His top targets are Ben Gabor (350 kills, 54 blocks), Springer (296), Justin McCarthy (283), Andrew Bergstrand (131 kills, 54 blocks) and Elonas Marcauskas (60 kills, 62 blocks).

The CCAC Libero of the Year, senior Jake Olson (285 digs) anchors the defense.

Even with big hitters at outside, Springer said the Cougars’ identity is tied to their defense.

“We’re a scrappy team. We pick up a lot of balls,” Springer said. “We dig everything. This wasn’t considered a winning program before this season. We knew we could turn it around.”