While the competitive gap in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association continues to close, there remains one constant: Penn State.
The Nittany Lions, under the direction of veteran coach Mark Pavlik and winners of 30 EIVA titles and 18 EIVAs in the last 19 years, once again are picked to rule the roost.
Penn State received all eight first-place votes in the preseason EIVA coaches poll with Princeton second, George Mason third and Saint Francis (Pa.) fourth. Penn State defeated Saint Francis for the EIVA title a year ago, while Princeton and Sacred Heart (No. 7 EIVA preseason) made the semifinals.
“It’s an exciting time for our league,” Princeton coach Sam Shweisky said. “Penn State is a deserving favorite and will be very strong again, but teams have made a real push to challenge for the title in recent years. If you look at all the close league matches we’ve seen over the last two seasons, you’ll find that simply making the playoffs will require strong, consistent play throughout the season.”
Pavlik, in his 23rd season at the helm in Happy Valley, sees another competitive conference slate in the offing.
“The growth is continuing,” he said. “Princeton and George Mason look to be very formidable this year and you can never count out Saint Francis and Harvard. It should be a fun conference slate.”
The conference returns no VolleyballMag.com first- or second-team All-Americans, but does boast returning honorable-mention performers in Sacred Heart libero Josh Ayzenberg, Princeton sophomore middle George Huhmann, Penn State redshirt sophomore right side Calvin Mende and Princeton senior middle Junior Oboh.
In terms of influx of talent, Penn State had the 10th-ranked incoming class by VolleyballMag.com with George Mason earning an honorable-mention nod.
2017 Record: 21-11, 11-3 EIVA
Key losses; Chris Nugent (OH), Matt Callaway
Who returns: Calvin Mende (6-11, RS, Soph.), Aidan Albrecht (6-8, OH, Sr.), Luke Braswell (6-4, S, Soph.), Kevin Gear (6-7, MB, Sr.), Royce Clemens (6-1, Libero, Jr.), Jalen Penrose (6-8, RS-MB, Sr.)
Analysis: The Nittany Lions, who lost to Hawaii in five in an NCAA tournament play-in game last spring and finished ranked 10th in the country, will be positioned for continued to success thanks to an experienced group of returners headlined by Mende, an honorable-mention All-American selection a year ago, along with Albrecht who was an all-EIVA second-team pick last season.
“Our strength is our returning starters with experience,” said Pavlik, who comes into the season with a 542-173 career mark. The longtime coach said serving and defense will be the keys that will unlock success for his group in 2018. “We have to continue to improve our serve-and-pass game along with creating more controlled opportunities defensively.”
2017 record: 12-14, 8-6 EIVA
Key losses: Jonah May (S)
Who returns: Junior Oboh (6-7, MB, Sr.), Kendall Ratter (6-4, OH, Sr.), George Huhmann (6-11, MB, Soph.), Parker Dixon (6-6, RS, Soph.), Greg Luck (6-5, OH, Soph.)
Analysis: The Tigers return six of seven starters from last year’s squad that reached the league semifinals. Oboh, Huhmann, the EIVA newcomer of the year last year, and Dixon represent three returning all-EIVA performers, which ties for the most in the league. As men’s college followers recall, the Tigers netted a highly ranked incoming freshman class last year, which produced three freshmen in the starting lineup.
Shweisky has high hopes for his middle blockers.
“We’re excited about Junior and George,” he said. “Both could challenge for All-America honors. Junior is one of the best two-way players we’ve had in my time here and George is a special talent who should be able to build off his experience last season.”
Shweisky also is looking for Dixon to take the next step.
“Parker showed exciting flashes last season and we’re excited to see how he builds off that.” With the graduation of May, the setting position is question mark heading into the season. “We’ll need to find an early chemistry with our freshmen setters (Joe Kelly and Niko Gjaja),” the coach said. “To help find that chemistry we’ll need to be a better passing team than last season. I’m hopeful a year of experience for several of our younger players will help that.”
2017 record: 13-14, 6-8 EIVA
Key losses: Radoslav Popov (OH), Graham Gresham (MB), Jack Wilson (RS)
Who returns: Brian Negron (6-7, S-RS, Sr.), Johnny Gomez (6-1, Libero, Sr.), Christian Malias (6-2, OH, Sr.), Kyle Barnes (6-4, OH, Jr.), Brad Creamer (6-9, MB, Soph.), Bryce Gatling (6-5, MB, Soph.), Sam Greenslade (6-7, OH, Soph.), Hayden Wagner (6-6, RS, Soph.), Luis Velez (6-4, S, Fresh.)
Analysis: George Mason, which won the EIVA title in 2016 for the first time in more than 25 years, is looking to shake off a 2017 season filled with injuries. Malias and Gomez are two key pieces to the puzzle. Both are returning all-conference players and Gomez, the team’s libero, earned AVCA All-American honors.
Saint Francis (Pa.)
2017 record: 16-15, 10-4 EIVA
Key losses: Jeff Hogan (RS), Daniel Ford (S)
Who returns: Stephen Braswell (6-2, OH, Sr.), Michael Fisher (6-5, OH, Soph.), Gabe Woffindin (6-3, Libero, Jr.), Keith Kegerreis (6-6, MB, Sr.)
Analysis: The Red Flash played Penn State in the EIVA title match last year and return a number of important players from that squad. Fisher and Kegerreis were named to the EIVA all-tournament team. Those two along with Stephen Braswell and Woffindin were all-EIVA second-team picks a year ago.
2017 record: 10-13, 7-7 EIVA
Key losses: Casey White (OH)
Who returns: Matt Ctvrtlik (6-5, S, Soph.), Trevor Dow (6-10, MB, Jr.), Brad Gretsch (6-6, MB-OH, Sr.), Erik Johnsson (6-4, OH, Soph.), Marko Kostich (S, Sr.), Riley Moore (6-5, MB, Sr.)
Analysis: Harvard, which missed conference postseason for the first time since 2011, has six returning starters back, including two-time all-EIVA senior Marko Kostich, who along with Ctvrtlik, will handle the Crimson offense. Gretsch is back after missing the majority of last year due to injury. Dow and Moore give Harvard firepower at the net — both ranked among the EIVA leaders in hitting percentage and blocks per set last season. Adam Gordon (6-2, OH) and Griffin Schmit (6-5, OH) are freshmen who will help on the pins.
New Jersey Institute of Technology
2017 record: 13-13, 6-8 EIVA
Who returns: Piotr Namiotko (6-5 RS, Soph.), Ricardo Whitaker (6-1, S, Jr.), Bailey Mundy (6-5 OH, Soph.), Kevin Myren (6-5, MB, Sr.), Shannon Heckman (5-8, Libero, Sr.)
Analysis: NJIT suffered two big losses with the graduation of 2016 and 2017 EIVA player of the year Jabarry Goodridge, along with senior all-conference pick Luke Robbe. NJIT is coming off a 2017 campaign where it recorded its highest win total since 2008 when the team advanced to the EIVA semifinals. Newcomer Alvaro Rubio, a 6-7 freshman right-side hitter from Spain, was active in the team’s season-opening loss at UCLA with seven kills.
2017 record: 15-11, 8-6
Key losses: Christopher DeLucie (OH), Eduardo Zardo (S), Michael Comens (OH), Doug Dzema (MB)
Who returns: Taylor Bloomquist (6-8, MB, Jr.), Joshua Ayzenberg (5-8, Libero, Sr.), Emerson Waumans (6-7, RS, Jr.), Noah Ricchetti (6-4, S, Jr.), Tyler Lee (5-10, S, Sr.), Robert Costigan III (6-5, OH, Sr.)
Analysis: Sacred Heart, which reached the EIVA semifinals last year, lost a pair of all-conference performers in outside DeLucie and setter Zardo. However, libero Ayzenberg was an all-EIVA first-team picked and earned honorable-mention All-American honors. Coach Greg Walker was named the 2017 EIVA coach of the year.
Charleston (W. Va.)
2017 record: 12-17, 0-14 EIVA
Who returns: Ryan Santos (6-6, OH, Sr.), Rajhal Moxey (6-3, RS, Sr.), Byron Hurd (6-5, RS, Jr.), Eugene Stuart (6-6, MB, Jr.) , Anthony Rivera (6-2, S, Sr.)
Analysis: Charleston is in search of its first-ever EIVA win since joining the conference three years ago. The Golden Eagles do return numerous statistical leaders from last year’s team that won 12 matches outside the conference. Santos averaged 3.02 kills per set, while Moxy was at 2.16 and Hurd 2.00. Stuart chipped in 1.52 kills per set and Rivera averaged 8.37 assists per set (745 total assists).