No matter the sport nor the season, things get tough at the end of a conference schedule. Maybe that’s what happened when Nazareth saw its 31-match winning streak end on the last competition of the regular season.
And so the second-ranked Golden Flyers from Rochester, N.Y., stand 31-1 heading into Saturday’s United Volleyball Conference tournament with a spot in the NCAA Division III Men’s Volleyball Championship at stake.
“This year the conference is extremely tough,” Nazareth coach Cal Wickens said. “I think we’ve done the groundwork to at least get an at-large bid if we don’t win our conference, which has always been our goal.”
That’s because if you don’t win your conference, the way the NCAA tournament is set up with nine teams (a first-round play-in match and four quarterfinals), you could easily be on the outside looking in.
“You could be out in the cold,” Wickens said, “and we spend enough time in the cold.”
So on what will likely be another cold, rainy day in Rochester, Saturday’s quarterfinals open with Penn State-Behrend (15-14) playing Nazareth, followed by 11th-ranked Vassar (19-12) against No. 10 NYU (14-12) and on the other side of the bracket Elmira (19-14) versus Stevens (23-8) and 12th-ranked Medaille (17-14) playing fifth-ranked New Paltz (25-5).
That would be the same New Paltz that stunned Nazareth last Sunday in three sets, 25-22, 25-20. 25-20. Earlier in the season, at New Paltz, Nazareth won in five, 15-11 in the fifth.
In the rematch, “They smoked us,” Wickens admitted. “They played really well and they were at our home.”
Nazareth was up against it plenty of times this season. It went 4-0 in five-set matches.
“Teams play really well against us,” Wickens said. “They’re psyched to play us when we’re 18-0, 20-0, 25-0, but we’ve overcome that. Our guys understand that it’s OK to lose if someone beats you if you’re playing well.”
Accordingly, he hopes the loss will serve as a good wake up and teaching tool.
“We learned a lot from that match,” Wickens said.
With a two-week break between the end of the regular season and the conference tournament, the Golden Flyers had time to regroup. Nazareth led the UVC in hitting as a team at .327 and held opponents to a league-best .166 percentage.
“This is a great group of guys with five seniors who have been to the final four and won a national title,” said Wickens, the only coach Nazareth has had in the program’s nine years of existence. He also serves as the school’s women’s coach.
Two years ago, he guided the Nazareth men to the 2011 national championship, beating Springfield in the title match. Last year, they lost to eventual-finalist Carthage in the quarterfinals, 18-16 in the fifth after being up 14-11. In 2010, Nazareth made it to the semifinals.
This season, they played most of their matches against teams that were ranked.
Nazareth starts two freshmen, 6’6” outside hitter Tim Zyburt from Wheaton, Ill., and Grant Levermore, a 6’5” outside hitter from nearby Fairport, N.Y. Zyburt leads the team with 293 kills and is hitting .328, while Levermore is second in kills with 225.
The setter, however is a senior. EJ Wells-Spicer, from Phelps, N.Y., has 976 assists and 24 service aces this season.
“We consider him the best setter in the country,” Wickens said.
The libero is senior Dan Mowry, also from Phelps, N.Y.
“He’s lights out,” Wickens said.
The lead middle is 6’7” senior Robert Kraft. The product of Waretown, N.J., has 64 blocks this season, 14 solo, and 24 service aces.
“He should have been MVP when we won the national championship and he’s a first-team All-American,” Wickens said.
The other middle is sophomore Luke Lawatsch, a 6’5” Penfield, N.Y., native who has 189 kills, and 67 blocks, seven solo.
“The makeup of this team, with the freshmen and seniors, it’s a pretty focused group,” Wickens said. “We’re not lucky that we’re 31-1, but on the other hand we’ve been lucky at times, too, but we have depth and have all sorts of kids who can do the job and believe in each other.”
Sunday’s conference tournament final starts at 1 p.m. ET. The NCAA tournament will be April 26-28 in Cambridge, Mass., at the DuPont Athletic Center on the campus of MIT.