The NCAA Division I-II men’s volleyball tournament begins Sunday at UCLA when two Eastern teams, EIVA-champion Princeton and Conference Carolinas-champion North Greenville, play at 5 p.m. Pacific (The full schedule follows). North Greenville is making its first NCAA appearance in what is coach Fred Battenfield’s final season:

Matt McManaway had a choice.

Like many young athletes in Ohio — particularly those who, like him, grew up in the Columbus area — McManaway dreamed of being an Ohio State athlete. He was a volleyball player, 6-foot-6 and upwards of 240 pounds, but was told by then-Buckeyes coach Pete Hanson that he “wasn’t big enough.”

Hanson told McManaway he could walk on.

But there was another offer on the table. Fred Battenfield, a Ph.D., veteran volleyball official and sports information director, had been tasked with starting the men’s program at North Greenville University, a tiny, Division II Baptist school in Tigerville, South Carolina.

Battenfield was offering a scholarship. It would be a huge gamble for McManaway, getting in on the ground floor of a fledgling program at a school that, with its policies of no alcohol and no co-ed dorms, would be a tough sell to most 18-year-olds eager to soak up “college life.”

But Battenfield had a sales pitch that appealed to McManaway and his mother and father, who happened to be a Baptist minister.

“I said, ‘You come here, I’m going to give you a very large scholarship primarily because I need a foundation player.’ I told him, ‘You can go to North Greenville and be a part of something that you start, or you can go to Ohio State and sit on the bench for a year or two.’ ”

That was eight years ago. McManaway is still at North Greenville, serving as Battenfield’s top assistant. He has helped see the program from humble beginnings to where it is now:

Coming off its first Conference Carolinas title and in its first NCAA Tournament, where it will face EIVA champ Princeton at 8 p.m. Eastern on Sunday at historic Pauley Pavilion.

“It was Saturday night. We won the conference tournament, and I was driving back to Greenville from Mount Olive, North Carolina, which is like a five-hour drive,” McManaway said. “I think probably every 10 or 15 minutes I was like, ‘We just won. We’re going to UCLA.’ ”

North Greenville coach Fred Battenfield

And it all started with Battenfield, who turns 67 in May.

Now Battenfield is retiring after this season, bringing down the curtain on an eclectic career in storybook fashion.

Building a program

Battenfield came to North Greenville, a school with an undergraduate enrollment of less than 1,900, in 2007. Battenfield arrived not as a volleyball coach but as a professor. He had been out of the game for a 11 years after serving two decades in varying capacities: High school and college official, club team player, program starter/coach (UT-San Antonio women in 1983 and men from 1984-86), SID and even media officer for the USA men’s and women’s national teams in three Olympic Games.

But in 1996, because of family, work and desire to pursue his doctorate, Battenfield left volleyball behind.

Or so he thought.

In 2013, he was approached by NGU athletic director Jan McDonald and told the school was starting a men’s volleyball program that would begin competition in spring 2015.

She wanted Battenfield to be the coach.

Much had changed in the sport since Battenfield walked away nearly 20 years earlier. Rally scoring didn’t exist, and he said he “didn’t even know what a libero did.”

“So I’m this dinosaur that comes along,” he said. “No coach in the country knew who I was.”

Battenfield got his program cornerstone in McManaway. But there were few other episodes during the first few seasons that went as smoothly.

Besides having strict rules, North Greenville lacked the volleyball amenities enjoyed by schools of similar ilk that had long-established programs. Even the gym was unappealing, with two large beams from the building’s original configuration looming no more than 25 feet above the net.

“One of the things we always joke about, coach and I, is if we would have had video cameras during that first year or two, we could have made so much money with the reality TV show aspect,” McManaway said. “I don’t want to say it was drama, but we had no upperclassmen, we were a bunch of freshmen, this was our first time away from our parents, away from what we knew.

“To be honest, those first couple of years were very tough.”

North Greenville finished with losing records in each of its first four seasons (2015-18). But that was about to change.

McManaway, now in love with the area he knew nothing about when he arrived four years prior, stayed on as Battenfield’s assistant. That gave Battenfield someone who was invested in the program’s success to help sell it to others.

Getting better players, that was the rub. In an area of the country where boys volleyball is hardly prominent — and given a limited recruiting budget — North Greenville faced a climb as steep as the surrounding mountains.

Battenfield, however, stumbled onto a wellspring of talent from a somewhat surprising source. At a tournament in Columbus, he discovered Sergio Carrillo.

“I was on a side court,” Battenfield recalled. “I don’t go where the big kids are, where all the big guys are standing around watching the kids from California … because I’m not getting those guys. I see this large Puerto Rican guy … great hands, he can beat the ball, he was about 6-5.

“I walked over there, and I said, ‘Hey, anybody recruiting you?’ He said no.”

Carrillo, a setter, signed and joined the program for the 2019 season — the first in which the Crusaders reached .500 in Conference Carolinas and had a winning record overall.

North Greenville setter Sergio Carrillo

“Coming out of high school I just wanted a chance to play at the highest level in college,” said Carrillo, who played tennis as a youth and didn’t take up volleyball until high school. “I had a chance to play at some bigger schools, but it wouldn’t benefit me and my family. I really wanted to play and show my skills, and I really feel I got that opportunity here.”

Carrillo enjoyed his experience at NGU so much, he put the word out to some of his fellow players back home. Middle hitter Emanuel Adames came on board the following season. In subsequent years, outside hitter Diego Rosich, opposite hitter Gregory Torres and middle Michael de la Cruz followed.

All five played major roles in NGU’s 2022 Conference Carolinas title. Battenfield called freshman Torres one of the best opposites in the country. De la Cruz is listed at 6-3 but is closer to 6-1 and weighs 165 pounds, but Battenfield touted him as “the quickest middle in the country.” He ranked No. 19 in the nation with .933 blocks per set and 17th in hitting percentage (.382).

North Greenville’s Gregory Torres attacks

Carrillo ranked No. 12 in the nation at just under 10 assists per set.

“I was the first Puerto Rican here, and I knew we could do something special here and I could help some of the boys back home open the door and get their academics paid for and at the same time play volleyball,” Carrillo said. “The boys trusted me and trusted the program, trusted the idea of winning. … So far it has paid off.”

Best of all, the Crusaders are set up with talent for the next couple of years. Only two of the seven players in the starting rotation — libero Christian Phung and outside hitter Brandon Baker — are graduating.

“The only reason I got back into this game is the cliche: To grow the game,” Battenfield said. “To try to give boys the opportunity to come play college volleyball. It’s a tough sell at a Christian institution.

“The other side of it is, these are the kind of kids that I want. They understand what we do. We’ve become a good volleyball team, and that’s the fun part.”

Added Baker: “A lot of teenagers aren’t wanting to come and live this kind of lifestyle. I know we’ve lost multiple recruits off that basis alone. But those who choose to come and play for this program believe in what this school is doing and what the team is doing.”

Winning the prize

North Greenville lost in the conference semifinals last season. In 2022, the Crusaders finally made it to the top of the conference, finishing 12-2 (20-5 overall), yet, McManaway said, there still seemed to be some lingering doubts about its potential to win the conference tournament.

And maybe a little disrespect, too. Consider that no Crusaders player was named to the all-conference first team, though de la Cruz was voted freshman of the year. Baker said the day before the championship match, all four of writers picked tournament host Mount Olive to win.

“Midseason, we were a really good team,” Carrillo said. “I knew we had the players for it, but we weren’t there yet. … Ending the season, like two, three weeks ago, I saw how the team was playing and said, ‘We’re dangerous now.’ ”

After eliminating Emmanuel College in three relatively stress-free sets, the top-seeded Crusaders were set up for a showdown with Mount Olive in the final. NGU already had beaten Mount Olive twice in the regular season, both times in five sets.

The final was no different, as North Greenville 25-22, 23-25, 25-16, 21-25, 15-7 for its seventh victory in a row.

“It was such a great volleyball game,” Carrillo said, admitting he’s watched two replays of the match. “Let’s give credit where credit is due: Mount Olive is a really good volleyball team. I just feel we’re just a tiny bit better. It’s really hard to beat a team like that three times in a row, especially in their house in the finals.”

So now it’s off to Pauley Pavilion, where Princeton awaits. Princeton upset Penn State in the EIVA final to reach the tournament.

“Think about the concept of a school with 1,600 people in Tigerville, S.C., playing Princeton with a $37 billion endowment,” Battenfield said. “How many dinky little colleges get to play in Pauley Pavilion? … It’s like Hoosiers, really.”

And the Crusaders aren’t ruling out a Hoosiers-like result.

“We’ve definitely been the underdogs throughout our whole season,” Phung said. “Even in the (conference) finals, even though we won the regular season, we were voted to lose that game. So we don’t feel as much pressure as most other teams will, so that will definitely be helpful.”

Added Baker: “I think coach McManaway said it best. He said our goal should be to win the conference tournament, but our dreams look beyond that because we know what we’re capable of. We might be some small school from South Carolina that not many people know about, but we know how to play the sport of volleyball, and we’re pretty good at it.”

Walking away

Pure passion for volleyball is what kept Battenfield going through the past eight years. And even though the passion is still there, it was time to step away from the sidelines.

The long bus rides, the hours of preparation and practice, not to mention the full-time gig as a professor, became too much. After a discussion with his wife, Battenfield decided enough was enough and announced his retirement before the season opened.

Though he could not comment on the search, Battenfield, who will continue as a professor at NGU, said his replacement should be known soon. McManaway seems a likely candidate, but Battenfield declined any discussion on the matter.

He did give a lot of credit to McManaway for where the program is now.

“I can’t coach a lick,” he said. “Matt has been the one. He’s a younger guy, he understands the players and pushes them really hard. He’s the one that’s kind of built the technical side of it. I’m just kind of the one who stands there and looks good.”

North Greenville’s Christian Phung

His players, and McManaway, beg to differ.

“He’s a great recruiter,” McManaway said. “He has closed the deal on a lot of guys who probably could have gone to other schools. We have several kids on our roster who could be playing pretty much anywhere else.”

Said Baker: “(Battenfield) has been monumental to the growth of this program. He’s the reason that I’m here … He really loves each and every one of us like his sons.”

Added Phung: “I told him myself that he gave me the best volleyball career I have ever had. I could have gone a lot of different places, but I thought no place could have been better just because of him.”

And Carrillo: “It’s awesome that he can finish like this.”

Battenfield thinks so, too.

Five decades of whistles, press releases, game plans, recruiting, teaching and program building have come to this, to Pauley Pavilion. The self-deprecating, somewhat-reluctant coach from the little-program-that-could makes his final stand at one of the meccas of college volleyball.

He calls it the “perfect final chapter.”

“I can definitely say I will walk away with a smile on my face,” Battenfield said. “After 49 years of doing this, I can finally say, ‘I did something good.’ ”

NCAA MEN’S TOURNAMENT (all times Eastern)
Sunday, May 1

Princeton vs. North Greenville, 8 p.m.,
Tuesday, May 3
UCLA vs. Pepperdine, 8 p.m.,
Hawai’i vs. Princeton/N. Greenville, 10:30 p.m.,
Thursday, May 5
Long Beach vs. UCLA/Pepperdine, 8 p.m.,
Ball State vs. Hawai’i/Princeton/N. Greenville, 10:30 p.m.,
Saturday, May 7
Championship, 8 p.m., ESPN2
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North Greenville coach Fred Battenfield reacts as his team’s name is anounced in the NCAA bracket



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