Conference Carolinas preview: Mount Olive, Barton, King top poll, but coaches expect balance

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Men's volleyball roundup 1/11/2019-Tobi Azeez-Mount Olive-Conference Carolinas
Tobi Azeez, attacking last year against Long Beach State, leads league favorite Mount Olive/James Benson, UMO Athletics Photographer

Conference Carolinas, which gets one of the five automatic bids to the NCAA men’s volleyball tournament, is poised to have its most competitive year yet. 

“The Conference Carolinas is going to be competitive across the board,” Barton coach Jeff Lennox offered. “I believe all teams will compete at a consistent level which will make for an exciting season.”

King’s Ryan Booher agrees.

“The conference is probably the deepest it has been in many years,” Booher said. “Mount Olive, Barton, Belmont Abbey, and North Greenville all have solid returning players with potential to be really good.”

Speaking of North Greenville, last season it upset then-No. 10 Grand Canyon, a big moment for the league.

The preseason poll ranks Mount Olive No. 1, Barton No. 2 and King No. 3. Those three teams have typically been able to separate themselves from the pack, but reduced practice opportunities and extended COVID years are likely to promote parity.

“I think all the teams in our conference have a chance to do well because all these young men are hungry to get on the court and get the chance to compete,” Mount Olive’s Ali’i Keohohou said. “You mix that with the knowledge and experience of the coaches at each school and it really is anyone’s game. 

“Historically you look at who is in the upper half of the conference and you always see Barton and King, but you can never count out Belmont Abbey or North Greenville. 2021 will definitely be an interesting season to say the least.”

The conference lost Limestone, which will compete as an independent. Limestone is in the South Atlantic Conference, which doesn’t sponsor men’s volleyball.

Here is our look at all the Conference Carolinas teams in alphabetical order with their 2019-2020 records:

Adrian Inglesias

Barton (13-2, 8-0) — Barton is becoming a fixture at the top of the Conference Carolinas. In 2019, the program had its best season in school history at 25-5, 14-2, earning the right to host an NCAA Tournament play-in match. In 2020 the team was undefeated in league play with its only losses to the MIVA’s Lewis and the EIVA’s Harvard.

The Bulldogs got two first-votes but have some big shoes to fill after losing 6-6 opposite Angelos Mandilaris to graduation. The second-team AVCA All-American led with 217 kills last spring. Look for 6-8 senior middle Dimitrios Kyridis and 6-5 junior outside Adrian Iglesias to lead the way in 2021. 

Iglesias (who is from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico) had 161 kills last spring (3.35/set) while Kyridis (from Thessaloniki, Greece) had 84 (1.65/set). Kyridis also led with 40 blocks, seven solo.

There are six freshmen, including 6-3 setter Bartosz Slawinski (Radom, Poland) and 6-5 opposite Jayton Hall (Queen Creek, Arizona).

“We are returning four key starters and one player who will step into the starting lineup,” Lennox said. “They all have high level competition experience and are excited to pick up where we left off when the 2020 season was cut short. Although practice has looked different with our COVID protocols, the hard work and effort is still the same. The team has grown a lot this fall and we are grateful to have a season and compete for a championship this spring.”

Belmont Abbey (8-10, 5-5) — Fifth-year coach Nolan Albrecht’s Crusaders were picked fourth.

The top returners 6-6 junior opposite Andrew Kohut (Naperville, Illinois) and 6-0 senior setter Brennan Davis (Manahawkin, NJ).

“Andrew Kohut on the right side is a standout for sure,” Albrecht said. “His jump has improved and he made the USA collegiate national team last year as a sophomore. He hits a really heavy ball, he blocks really well, he’s your quintessential right side. He’s even digging a few balls as well.”

Davis, Albrecht said, “jumps like a frog, he sets a really good offense.”

Belmont Abbey loses a critical component in conference co-offensive player of the year in Liam Maxwell, an outside who led the nation in kills per set at 4.53, while hitting .334.

Freshman Matteo Miselli (Reggio Emilia, Italy) transferred from Tusculum.

“Mateo was an independent All-American last year. He’s from Italy, 6-2, super-explosive, hits a really hard ball and has good touch on his passing, and serves really well.”

Albrecht thinks the league is wide open.

“We had a lot of guys on the top teams in the conference transfer out, a few graduations, a lot of changes,” he said. “I think we’re really in for a treat in seeing how it all shakes out.” 

Emmanuel, Georgia (8-9, 1-2) — Coach James Friddle’s team was picked eighth as he enters his fourth season.  He’ll be relying on all-conference pick Aleksa Lakic, a 6-4 senior outside from Sremska Kamenica, Serbia, who averaged 2.65 kills/set, and 6-6 senior setter Henrik Westhoff returns to run the offense.

Opposite Alex Zayas, another all-league pick graduated, but the Lions have six freshmen, including 6-8 middle Robert Clary (Clear Lake, Texas) and 6-4 middle Carlos Guerrero (Ewabeach, Hawai’i)

“We are overjoyed with the outlook for the 2021 season,” Friddle said. “The blend between youth and experience should make for an exciting season with high expectations.”

Erskine (4-10, 1-8) — The Flying Fleet, picked seventh, have almost everyone back, including 6-4 repeat freshman opposite Jacob Whyte, who led in kills with 3.05/set while hitting .227.

While losing just libero Gary Aromin (Tamuning, Guam), Erskine has three freshmen, 6-3 outside Kacper Rybarczyk (Warsaw, Poland), 6-0 outside Noah Van Wieren (Anderson, S.C.), and 6-10 middle Magnas Mahurin (Indianapolis, Indiana). 

Sixth-year coach Justin Brubaker is anxious to prove the preseason poll wrong.

“Our team is ready for this season and excited for the opportunity to compete,” said Brubaker, 49-80 in his first five years. We have players who are ready to step up and lead this team to success. We are underdogs in the conference pre-season poll, and hungry to prove that ranking wrong.”

King (9-9, 5-3) — King, picked third, will be the host for the Conference Carolinas semifinals and championship match April 15-17.  Certainly 12th-year coach Ryan Booher hopes his team will be one of those four semifinalists. 

“We have a bunch of experience coming back this season,” Booher said. “We are looking to build on a shortened season from last year.”

In 2019, King was points away from earning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament before Barton won the fifth set 17-15. Last season its three losses were to CC powers Barton, Mount Olive and Limestone. 

This year the Tornado will be led by its three Conference Carolinas players to watch selections, 6-6 senior right-side Joshua Kim (Garden Grove, California), 6-1 junior outside Suetonius Harris (Chesapeake, Virginia) and 6-3 senior setter JT Deppe (Mukwonago, Wisconsin). Booher also anticipates that 5-10 junior libero Noah Melendez (Carolina, Puerto Rico) will also be key this year.

King’s  2020 all-conference selections, 6-5 middle Julian Young and 6-4 outside Sean Kohlhase, graduated. But Booher looks to four players to make an impact, 6-4 junior outside Chance Hoffman, 6-3 freshman middle Raymond Lindo, 6-6 freshman middle Kellan Kennedy, and 6-3 freshman setter/right side AJ Drooker.

Mount Olive (12-7, 7-2) — Mount Olive got six first-place votes and, with 47 points in the poll, was four points ahead of Barton. The Trojans return a wealth of experience, with 6-4 sophomore outside Tobi Azeez, 6-6 junior outside Jarrod Ferguson, 6-5 senior right-side Luke Visgitis, and 6-5 senior middle Eric Visgitis.

“This is easily the deepest and most well-balanced team, at every position, we have had since I have been here,” third-year coach Ali’i Keohohou said. “The team is anxious to return and get to work as the fall was a lot of stop and go for us (COVID wise). I know they will put in the work throughout season to give our team the best shot at a conference championship.”

Mount Olive will have to transition to new setters after losing Shane Yeo and Nico Laxar.

“The key additions to our lineup come in our sophomore class, so we are looking to them to step up big and fill in the missing pieces we lost from last year,” Keohohou said. “Unfortunately, due to not having a normal fall off season, our freshmen just need a little more time in the gym to get their bearings, but will be very good options for us this season.”

Jackson Gilbert

North Greenville (10-9, 4-4) — “Last year North Greenville beat Grand Canyon, and they’re returning almost every player from that team,” Belmont Abbey coach Nolan Albrecht said. “They could surprise some people and turn some heads.”

NG actually opened its season this past Thursday with a 3-1 victory over independent Tusculum. In that match, Jackson Gilbert led with 13 kills and three blocks, and that’s something seventh-season head coach Dr. Fred Battenfield (67-91) expects to continue for the 6-6 graduate outside, who led the team last year with 3.8 kills per set while hitting .286.

“Jackson Gilbert is without question one of the top outside hitters in the nation and he decided to come back to play one more season because he didn’t want to end his career the way the 2020 season did, Battenfield said. “He gives us some great experience and leadership that keeps our team focused on our primary goal.  

Also back are 6-6 senior middle Brandon Baker, second in kills (138), and 6-3 senior opposite Luis Kannee (124 kills, 1.94/set). Battenfield believes that 5-10 junior libero Christian Phung is one of the nation’s top liberos at any level, who last year averaged 2.32 digs/set and had a .968 pass-reception percentage. The setter will be 6-5 junior setter Sergio Carrillo after Jake Boldog graduated.

There are six freshman, including 6-7 opposite Mark Autry and 6-6 middle hitter Emanuel Adames, whom Battenfield said might have been the best middle in Puerto Rico. Also in the mix will be 6-3 outside Tom Curry, and 6-1 setter Jorge Riesgo is expected to press for playing time.

“We have a nice blend of veterans and several really good freshmen,” Battenfield said, “so that’s the final piece to the formula I’ve worked so hard to create at NGU.”

“The Conference Carolinas schedule will be rigorous as always and although we were picked fifth in the preseason poll, this could be the year we eclipse that,” Battenfield said. “To say that we anticipate a good season this year would be a major understatement.  It really comes down to staying healthy to a schedule that is packed into a tight window this year.”  

Lees-McRae (3-12, 1-7) — Cailtin Bullock, the women’s coach the past two years, added the job as head men’s coach to her plate. In our story about her last month, she acknowledged rebuilding will take some time. L-M was picked to finish sixth.

The entire starting lineup returns, including 6-2 sophomore setter Bradley Peters (Virginia Beach, Virginia), 6-4 sophomore outside Michael Marsans (2.09 kills/set) and 6-5 senior middle Ethan Gardner (1.16 kills/set, .154 percentage), and 6-4 freshman outside Nic Brewster could be a key pickup for the Bobcats, Bullock said.

“He has really shined in the preseason,” she said. “I think he will keep getting better with time.”

She said the team is excited to compete, especially after what happened last spring.

“They have all worked very hard in the offseason to fine tune many things and it shows,” Bullock said. “We compete against ourselves every day, working to get 1% better each day. 

“I think we are all hoping this year is the year that Lees-McRae’s men’s volleyball program makes a statement to everyone who has doubted them. We are a young team, but we are hungry team. I am very excited to see what they can do.”

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