Conference Carolinas: Newest league building on success

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The Conference Carolinas is not only the newest league in the NCAA men’s volleyball Division I/II arena, joining the party in 2012, but has since added Belmont Abbey, Erskine, and North Greenville and will field nine teams for 2017.

The CC, made up of solely Division II teams, located in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, was granted its first automatic berth in 2014, when conference champion Erskine earned a spot in the national quarterfinal match at Loyola of Chicago.

And while its winners have not yet won a set in post-season play, the conference is becoming more competitive each year.

“Now that it’s been a full cycle for the CC,” Belmont Abbey coach Sean Manzi said, “each team has progressively gotten stronger, and it’s really exciting to watch every match. The Conference Carolinas are doing a really good job of challenging each other to create competition in all of D1/D2.”

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Federico Pagliara of Barton/Barton athletics

For the first time, Barton College was tabbed as the top team in the preseason coaches’ poll, receiving 78 points and six of nine first-place votes. Last year the Bulldogs were 22-7 (14-4 in ConfCarolinas), but were upended by top seed Erskine in the conference final.

“Being selected number one in the preseason poll is a testament to the hard work our athletes have put in each year to elevate our program to the next level,” coach Jeff Lennox said. “As a young team last year we matured and learned a lot as a group which has prepared us for what lies ahead this season. We will continue to work hard and prepare as always, and the preseason ranking will not distract us from how much we plan to progress and grow as a team.”

Lennox enters his fifth season, and will have to integrate four freshman and two transfers.

The Bulldogs return four key starters from last year, including senior setter Federico Pagliara, who was named all-conference second team with 10.84 assists/set, 132 digs and 33 blocks. Last year’s CC freshman of the year and third-team honoree Vasilis Mandilaris had 328 kills and hit .282. Sophomore outside Aleksa Brkovic, just 6-3, was tops in the NCAA in services aces (64 total, .64/set) and had 249 kills. 6-8 sophomore middle Nick Leary finished with 142 kills and 72 blocks.

“Our goal remains to improve each day in order to be playing our best volleyball at the end of the season. That is what matters in our gym,” Lennox said.

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Mount Olive completed 2016 with a 12-12 record and a 11-7 conference record, tied for fourth. Head coaches David Heller and Jennifer Charles are happy their team was picked second in the poll, a tribute to the strength of four returning starters: 6-5 junior outside Kian Hollevoet, 6-9 junior opposite Robert Poole, 6-5 junior setter Jeff Yasalonis, and 5-10 senior libero Josh Donahue.

The Trojans will need to replace the output of outside Victor Fraga Leal (1.9 kills/set) and setter Tyler Yanez (9.93 assists/set).

Nick Drooker serves for King/Earl Carter, King athletcs
Nick Drooker serves for King/Earl Carter, King athletics

King, picked third, comes off a 8-24 record, eighth in the conference at 5-13. Coach Ryan Booher enters his eighth season at 74-104 (35-53 in conference). The Tornado return six key players, losing only middle Matthew Lychock (1.63 kills/set, .286 hitting percentage).

6-5 junior Jeff Sprayberry was second team all-CC and set a school record with 420 kills, while averaging 3.65 kills/set and adding 201 digs, 53 blocks. 6-2 Junior Nick Drooker broke his own school record last year with 1,018 assists (most in conference), averaged 8.85 assists/set, 232 digs, 65 blocks. 6-8 sophomore Jon Wheaton set a school record with 104 block assists and 113 blocks (tops in conference), 1.03 blocks/set, .345 hitting percentage, 192 kills. 6-4 redshirt junior Adrian Besson posted 57 blocks last year, with 116 kills. 5-9 redshirt junior libero Jimmy Nuckolls dug 193 balls, 1.84/set last year. 5-11 redshirt senior Eddie Moushikhian was second team  in 2015 on the strength of 324 kills, 3.45/set.

Three newcomers will don the scarlet and navy: 6-0 transfer Kiel Bel from Florida Atlantic (114 kills, 57 assists, 10 service aces), 6-4 transfer Adam Krzos from Lincoln College (all-conference MWPVC honors), and 6-0 freshman defensive specialist Tristen Luu, from San Jacinto Christian Academy.

“We are looking forward to setting new standards to achieve for our volleyball program and team this season,” Booher said. “We are returning players with experience and a drive to be better than we have before. We have also added three players to help give us depth at every position. We are striving to do well in conference and play in the conference tournament with an opportunity to advance to the NCAA Tournament. With the leadership of Nick Drooker, Jeff Sprayberry, Eddie Moushikhian, and others we will be a competitive team.”

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The Conference Carolina preseason poll picked Limestone to finish fourth/Limestone athletics

Limestone was 10-15 (6-12 ConfCarolinas) last season, and was picked to finish fourth in the coaches’ preseason poll. Brandon Skweres is in his second season as head coach, and returns four starters, including 6-3 senior outside Bruno Kretzschmar, a second-team selection with 365 kills and 31 aces. 6-6 senior middle Joel Huhlbach recorded 1.5 kills/set, and finished with 64 total blocks. 6-4 senior middle Dylan Lavner had 152 kills, 14 assists, 12 aces, and led the team with 91 total blocks (16 solo, 48 assists). 6-3 senior libero Nick Wildes led with 236 digs.

The Belmont Abbey Crusaders are coming off a record season in 2016/Belmont Abbey athletics
The Belmont Abbey Crusaders are coming off a record season in 2016/Belmont Abbey athletics

Belmont Abbey won its first post-season home match last year, making its first Conference Carolinas semifinal appearance. The Crusaders ended a record season with a 18-11 (11-7) record. Second-year coach Manzi returns key starters 6-1 junior libero Robert Valentine, 6-4 senior middle/outside Brennan Beynard, and 6-4 senior outside Robert Nixon.

The Crusaders will need to replace graduated Derek Sullivan and outside Justin Snyder.

“We’re young, we have six freshmen and one transfer, we have a lot of work to do. We open up with George Mason, and that will be one of my favorite matches of the year because we’re so excited and so hyped to play them, we’re only going to better after playing that match,” Manzi said. “Our current freshmen are doing a great job of learning and adapting to the speed of the game, so when we get out there we’ll be a formidable foe in the Conference Carolinas.”

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Erskine will rely on key freshmen this year/Erskine athletics

Erskine has established itself as a powerhouse of the Conference Carolinas, earning the league’s NCAA berth in two of the last three years. Last year the Fleet finished on top of the CC with a 21-7 record (15-3) under first year coach Justin Brubaker, but were swept by Long Beach in the NCAA quarterfinals.

For 2017, Erskine has some big shoes to fill, with the losses of CC player of the year/Honorable mention All-American outside Mike Michelau, now playing professionally for the Bigbank Tartu team in Estonia, first team all-conference/defensive player of the year libero Michael Schneck, second team all-conference outside Roberto Perez Vargas, and third team all-conference setter David Grandy.

Coach Brubaker has retooled with nine talented freshmen, Kevin Braceros, Josh Bragg, Nate Woodson, Matt Friddle, Drake Muhlenbeck, Antonio Delgado Rolon, Barry Greenough, Daniel Hermida, and Myles Engle.

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Alex Schinzing of North Greenville sets/NGU photo

North Greenville compiled a 12-15 record (7-11) in 2016, finishing with a heartbreaking five set loss to Barton in the first round of the CC playoffs. Head coach Fred Battenfield has some great pieces to build a team around, including second team all-conference junior libero Dustin King (250 digs in 2016), and 6-2 junior setter Alex Schinzing (9.39 assists/set, 31 aces).

The Crusaders will need to replace third-team all-conference picks Luuga Vailu’u (223 kills, 73 blocks, 16 aces) and Jon Childes (226 kills, 21 aces).

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John Sobel of Lees McRae takes a swing/Lees McRae athletics

Lees-McRae finished 1-25 overall, 0-18 in CC play last year. The Bobcats return four starters and their libero, 6-1 senior setter/outside Mark Shayka (90 kills, 14 aces, 63 digs, 47 blocks), 6-1 senior opposite Rudy Klass (32 kills, 13 aces, 58 digs, 43 blocks), 6-5 senior outside John Sobel (207 kills, 107 digs, 27 blocks 18 aces), 6-3 sophomore outside Hector Serviat, and 5-11 senior libero Keenan Freitas (17 assists 3 aces, 144 digs).

Second year head coach Henry Chuang lost 6-3 setter Drew Blecher (7.8 assists/set).

Pfeiffer finished the 2016 season 16-8 (15-3), tied for the best regular-season ConfCarolinas record, but dropped a four-set contest to Barton in the tourney semifinals.

Pfeiffer Falcons Men's Volleyball v Barton Bulldogs
Sonny Hirini of Pfeiffer celebrates in 2016 play/Pfeiffer athletics

Fourth-year coach Paul Lawson has some serious rebuilding in store for the Falcons, graduating first team all-conference selections Harrison Lutz (6-3 setter) and Jonathan Martinez (6-4 outside), second team all-conference selections Fabio Dinz (6-5 middle) and Sonny Hirini (6-4 outside).

Third-team all-conference member Evan Blair (6-5 senior middle hitter), who led the conference in hitting percentage (.444) and was one of the top five nationally in blocks/set (1.2)

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