It's probably no surprise to see Mark Hulse shining for the Pepperdine men's volleyball program. It just took awhile to occur.

The fact that Hulse's older brother, Tom, ended his career last spring as one of the top blockers in Pepperdine history might have made it easy for Mark to head west as well. But after also enjoying a standout prep career at Evanston, he chose Rutgers-Newark as his college destination and played there during the 2006-07 season.

But Hulse pulled the trigger on a cross-country transfer last spring and ended up helping the Waves to the NCAA Tournament national title match, which they lost in four games May 3 to Penn State.

"It wasn't anything personal about Rutgers but the program was on a decline," said Hulse. "Once the head coach left, I was almost right out the door with him."

After some wrangling, which included Hulse unofficially pledging not to attend a school in Rutgers' conference, the school granted Hulse a free transfer, making it unnecessary to sit out a year.

But upon his arrival, Hulse saw two obstacles to getting onto the court. The first was simply the high caliber of competition.

"I didn't think I'd play that much; I thought I'd maybe travel (on road trips)," said Hulse, who ended up playing in every one of Pepperdine's games. "But after a few weeks (in preseason), they started throwing me into the lineup in drills."

Also weighing on Hulse was a switch to middle blocker from setter, a position he had excelled at since he began playing the sport as a high school freshman. But the Waves were stocked at setter, with reigning national Player of the Year Jonathan Winder closing out his career in 2008 and a highly-touted freshman in the wings for 2009. Pepperdine head coach Marv Dunphy was upfront with Hulse about the position change, but that didn't make it any easier.

"It was a big learning curve at first but I just tried to pick up as much as I could," said Hulse. "I was a little nervous about it at first but the coaches had confidence in me. They told me just to block the ball, play defense and serve hard."

The 6-foot-8-inch Hulse did exactly that, as he easily topped the Waves with 146 blocks and ranked third on the squad with 29 service aces. Once the move was made, Hulse realized that his setting background likely made the transition easier.

"As a setter, you tend to have a pretty good volleyball sense," he said. "The setter is in every part of practice and is involved in the entire game. There's a back and forth between everyone that other positions don't have."

Hulse's off-court transition to the other coast was lessened by the fact that Tom took a job after graduation in nearby Santa Monica. The younger Hulse had shied away from following in Tom's shadow, but he still enjoys having him nearby.

"Since everyone already knew him, I kind of already had my foot in the door when I got out there," said Hulse. "It's kind of cool having family around."

Hulse feels his indirect route to Pepperdine was for the best. He wanted to create his own identity after high school and wasn't sure if he had faced stringent enough competition in the Midwest.

"It just would have felt weird going to the same school as him (Tom) out of high school," said Hulse. "And I'm not sure I would have played as much (as a freshman) if I had gone to Pepperdine. I might have been in over my head."

Hulse definitely isn't now. Winder will be the Waves' only personnel loss for next year and if the new setter can acclimate quickly, the team should be serious contenders to earn the school's sixth national title, the last of which came when Tom Hulse was a sophomore in 2005.

Winning the top prize would be one way Hulse would love to follow in his older brother's footsteps.

"We got a nice trophy this year but I'll take the ring any day," he said.

• Kent State second baseman Doug Sanders (St. Edward) has led the Golden Flashes (31-18, 14-7 in conference) in hitting virtually the entire season, and heads into the final week of the regular season with a .389 average. Among his team-high 72 hits are 19 extra-base hits, including six home runs, 10 doubles and a team-high three triples.