The days of the Penn State men’s volleyball team running roughshod over the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association are apparently over.
After winning their 18th EIVA regular-season title in a row and 32nd conference title in program history last spring, the Nittany Lions were ousted from the EIVA tournament at home in the semifinals by Saint Francis, which ended up losing to George Mason in the finale.
Now George Mason, which won its first conference title in 28 seasons, is the preseason king of the hill, garnering seven of eight first-place votes in the EIVA preseason coaches poll. Penn State received the other first-place tally and was ranked second but only five points ahead of preseason EIVA No. 3 Saint Francis.
Mason, which was the No. 6 seed in the NCAA men’s championship at Penn State last year and lost to eventual NCAA-champion Ohio State in one of the two play-in matches, returns a number of high-profile contributors from a year ago.
Senior libero Johnny Gomez is back after leading the nation in digs a year ago (3.03 per set). He was an all-EIVA first-team pick and earned AVCA All-American honorable-mention accolades. Also back is 6-7 junior setter Brian Negron and 6-7 senior right side Jack Wilson, a fifth-year senior who had off-season shoulder surgery.
Second-year coach Jay Hosack — a former Penn State assistant — also is high on 6-7 redshirt sophomore middle Langston Payne, who originally came to the program as a walk-on right side but switched positions.
“He can touch 11-8 or 11-9 and has a real long hang time,” said Hosack. “I think he’s going to pose some headaches for teams we face.”
Mason’s incoming freshman class was ranked in the top 15 in the country by VolleyballMag.com and features the likes of Brad Creamer (6-8, RS), Sam Greenslade (6-7, OH), Hayden Wagner (6-6, OH) and Luis Velez (6-4, S). Creamer was a 2016 VolleyballMag.com Boys Fab 50 selection.
Hosack, the current USA men’s junior national team coach, said this year is trending on the different side with Mason being picked as the preseason conference favorite.
“It’s a new position for these guys,” he said. “It will be a real test to see how we handle the pressure. These are expectations we’ve never had before. We’ve turned the corner and now the real trick is maintaining that level of play on a consistent basis. We’re fired up to be in this new position.”
Hosack, the 2016 conference coach of the year, added that the EIVA as a whole has taken a major step forward.
“The EIVA this year is stronger and better than years past,” he said. “With us winning the title for the first time in 28 years and someone winning it for the first time in 18 years besides Penn State is quite a statement to be made. It shows the conference is getting better. Saint Francis had never beaten Penn State and it beat them twice in the same season last year. That’s a testament to Saint Francis and how hard they are recruiting over there and how that coaching staff has done a great job.
“As a whole, the conference has to go out and start beating some of the other teams from the other conferences on a regular basis and pick up the profile of the conference. Once that happens we will be considered an even stronger conference.”
Penn State is looking to put last year’s EIVA semifinal exit at Rec Hall in the rear-view mirror.
“Yes, I think last year was a disappointment in the sense we only lost one guy from the year before,” said longtime Penn State coach Mark Pavlik, who starts his 22nd year at the helm. “We didn’t rise to the challenge before us. We could have won three or four more matches with one more swing for a kill. We weren’t able to get it done. This year, we’re looking for the best possible ways we can to score points.”
The Nittany Lions, who have lost only seven EIVA matches in the last 20 years, welcome back 6-4 senior outside hitter Chris Nugent, redshirt sophomore outside Lee Smith, redshirt junior middle Kevin Gear, redshirt senior middle-right side Matt Callaway, as well as right sides Jalen Penrose (6-8, redshirt junior) and Calvin Mende (6-11, redshirt freshman).
Pavlik said Penrose and Mende are battling it out for the starting right-side positions. Nugent was the EIVA co-player of the year in 2016 along with NJIT’s Jabarry Goodridge.
The setting controls have been turned over to 6-4 redshirt freshman Luke Braswell.
“We’ll see how Luke develops,” Pavlik said. “He has a winning pedigree. His high school (Northeastern) won two state titles in Pennsylvania where the coach Matt Wilson (a former Ohio State player) runs a real nice program. He comes out of a program that knows how to win. That’s a crucial trait for a setter to have. I like the start Luke has gotten off to.”
Like Hosack, Pavlik agrees the EIVA continues upward.
“This is not your father’s EIVA,” he said. “I’m so proud of the conference. I think back when I first started and some programs were not well-supported. Many had part-time coaches or coaches that were coaching both men’s and women’s. That takes a toll. Since then, you have young coaches that want to do the right thing and want to work together to grow the EIVA.
“The last four or five years, every head coach in the conference has been at JO’s recruiting. There are good players out there and EIVA coaches are trying their hardest to get those kids into their gyms. I really like the direction the league is pointed in.”
Saint Francis, out of Loretto, Pa, returns all-EIVA first-team pick Stephen Braswell (6-2, OH), as well as second-team selections Daniel Ford (6-5, S) and Jeff Hogan (6-4, RS). The Red Flash, under the direction of coach Mike Rumbaugh, posted five wins a year ago against nationally ranked foes. Saint Francis had been 0-37 all-time against Penn State prior to its first of two wins against the Nittany Lions last season.
“It’s nice to get respect from everybody else in the conference to vote us third this season,” said Rumbaugh, the longest tenured active coach in the SFU athletics department in his 19th season. “I feel pretty good where we are at as a team. It is going to be a competitive battle throughout the EIVA since everyone is much improved this season.”
Princeton was ranked fourth in the EIVA preseason poll and will feature a youthful look this season. Former all-EIVA middle Junior Oboh will be a key figure for the Tigers, while Billy Andrew and Trey Sickler will vie for the other middle spot.
Coach Sam Shweisky, also head coach of the USA boys’ youth national team, brought in the No. 7 recruiting class in the nation as ranked by VolleyballMag.com, which features 6-11 St. Louis native George Huhmann, who adds depth and further promise to the middle position as a 2016 VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 pick.
Junior Kendall Ratter and freshmen Greg Luck and Parker Dixon will compete for outside playing time. Junior Mike Fuerst and senior Kurt Thiemann should compete for the right-side position while sophomore Matthew Nicholas returns from an injury.
Senior Jonah May and freshman Shane Gooding are at the setter’s slot, while sophomore Corry Short should open the season at libero.
Princeton is playing this weekend in the Outrigger Resorts Invitational in Hawaii. Princeton played in the 1998 NCAA semifinals at the Stan Sheriff Center on the campus of the University of Hawaii. Princeton will face AVCA No. 7 Hawaii and AVCA No. 15 Ball State.
New Jersey Institute of Technology, which opened last season 6-0 to achieve the program’s longest winning streak since 2007, returns the aforementioned Goodridge, who was an AVCA All-American honorable-mention pick last season and the EIVA co-player of the year, ranked fourth in the country in kills per set (4.38) and 36th in hitting percentage at .303. The Barbados native led the EIVA in both total kills (390) and kills per set.
Highlanders coach Danny Goncalves returns 11 letterwinners and four starters.
Harvard, under the direction of Princeton graduate Brian Baise (89-72 in six seasons), went 13-11 last year and 9-6 in EIVA action. The Crimson return eight letterwinners, including captains Casey White (6-4, OH, Mira Costa H.S. alum) and Sam Murphy (5-9 libero out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada). An incoming freshman class includes the likes of prep standout Matt Ctvrtlik (6-5, setter), the son of Olympian Bob Ctvrtlik and a 2016 VolleyballMag.com Boys’ Fab 50 selection.
Fairfield, Conn.-based Sacred Heart, under the leadership of coach Gregory Walker, returns a pair of all-EIVA second-team selections in senior right side Christopher DeLucie and junior libero Joshua Ayzenberg. DeLucie was second on the team and fourth in the conference in kills per set at 3.67 (which included a career-high 27 in a match against NJIT), while Ayzenberg was second in the EIVA and 10th in the country in digs per set at 2.55 (fifth all-time on Sacred Heart single-season list).
Charleston went 4-24 and the West Virginia school finished 0-14 in its first year in the EIVA last season. Coach Ken Murczek, the former women’s coach at Wake Forest, will work with the team’s top-three kill producers from a year ago in Nassau, Bahamas natives Eugene Stuart (6-6, MB, Soph.), Rajahl Moxey (6-3, RS, Jr.) and Reading, Pa. native Ryan Santos (6-6, OH, Jr.). The Golden Eagles will play their home matches in the school’s new Russell and Martha Wehrle Innovation Center.
EIVA Preseason Coaches’ Poll
- George Mason
- Penn State
- Saint Francis
- New Jersey Institute of Technology
- Sacred Heart
- Charleston (W. Va.)