With Most Experienced Lineup In Years, Tigers Eye Special Season In EIVA
Down 2-0 to NJIT with the potential of only 25 points remaining in its postseason dreams, the Princeton men's volleyball team pulled together last season for one dramatic push.
Over the next four days, the Tigers showed what they could be when things were rolling. A three-set rally over the Highlanders, followed by a dramatic five-set win at eventual EIVA finalist George Mason, sent Princeton back to the EIVA postseason for the first time since reaching the 2010 championship match.
Of course, Princeton was seeking even more. After earning eight match balls against Penn State in the regular season, the Tigers had dreams of snapping the host's stranglehold on Eastern volleyball. That would not happen. That team wasn't ready.
The one that will open its season next week against a pair of nationally ranked opponents feels that it could be that special squad.
Fourth-year coach Sam Shweisky, the 2010 EIVA Head Coach of the Year, may just have the right ingredients for a recipe that hasn't quite come together the way it did in 1998, when Princeton knocked Penn State off its perch and reached its only NCAA Final Four.
Experience? Princeton could have as many as six returning starters among its top seven, including libero Tony Ensbury. Depth? With some versatility in the starting lineup and a couple of key pieces on the bench, Princeton can withstand the predictable wear and tear of a volleyball season. Energy? You can feel it from a team that truly seems to believe 2013 could be special.
Of course, ingredients don't magically turn into a five-star meal, and this team knows it will have its work cut out this season.
Leading the way for Princeton is senior co-captain Michael Dye, a first-team All-EIVA selection last season after leading the league in attack percentage. Dye has proven the ability to produce on the biggest stage; as a freshman, he was named to the EIVA all-tournament team after leading Princeton to its first final since 1998.
While Dye is one of Princeton's most efficient hitters, as well as one of its more dangerous servers, Shweisky has been most impressed by his leadership this season. A fourth-year starter, Dye knows he has one last shot at the NCAA Championships.
Joining Dye on the All-East first team last year was Cody Kessel, the 2012 EIVA Newcomer of the Year. Kessel led the EIVA in both kills and points per set, and he was ranked seventh nationally in kills. He was the only freshman to rank among the national Top 15 in kills, and after a summer competing internationally, he could be ready to handle even more of the load this year.
Kessel was part of a dynamic three-man freshman trio that keyed Princeton's last run to the playoffs in 2012. Will Siroky joins Dye at the middle position, and he was arguably the most improved player in the league by the end of the season. He hit .435, which would have ranked second nationally had he qualified in attempts, and his 12-kill, 0-error effort at George Mason helped push the Tigers into the postseason.
Ensbury played at the highest level in the summer when he qualified for the Junior National Team, and he returns for his second season as the starting libero. After averaging 2.1 digs per set and recording a season-best 17 in the win at Mason, Ensbury could push for a spot on the All-EIVA team this season.
Those four positions should transition smoothly from last season. The two outside hitters and the setting spot will see some new faces, though not completely new to Princeton fans in certain cases.
The setting spot will likely go to one of two juniors, Davis Waddell or Jeff Stapleton. Both started at the outside position, while senior Scott Liljestrom completed his third year as the starting setter. Both have set in high school, and Waddell was the primary backup to Liljestrom in the past two years. Both have appeared in crucial matches, so they have experience, but both will need to develop an early chemistry with their hitters to ensure success.
Another name Tiger fans are familiar with is junior Pat Schwagler, who missed last year but has looked explosive throughout the preseason. Another former EIVA Newcomer of the Year, Schwagler averaged 3.6 kills per set and had a 31-kill effort during his freshman season. When he is on his game, Schwagler can be as dominant a hitter as there is in the league.
While Schwagler will take over one outside position, the lone newcomer to the starting lineup is the favorite on the other side. Devin Stearns, a 6-5 freshman from Los Altos Hills, Calif., jumped right into the top lineup early in preseason. He competed in the Open Division at the 2012 USA Junior Nationals, and he impressed enough people to be named to the all-tournament team. With as many impressive hitters as Princeton possesses this season, Stearns won't need to take too much on his shoulders. If he can establish himself as a legitimate option, though, he'll make it all the easier for his teammates.
Shweisky knows it will take more than those eight players to earn one of the top seeds in the EIVA regular season, but he feels good about both the versatility of his starters and the depth on the bench. For instance, Dye has already proven himself to be a steady producer on the right side. Either Waddell or Stapleton could handle an outside spot, and junior Brad Howard recorded 51 blocks and more than .7 kills per set out of the middle as a freshman. The freshman duo of Michael Bagnell and Zach Shaw will also push for time at outside, or wherever Shweisky could use them.
Talent is one thing, but Princeton has struggled with consistency for years. While the 2010 Tigers did reach the championship final, they were also a few points here or there from missing the postseason completely. It's been a decade since the Tigers have produced a winning record in league play during the regular season, and that has been a clear goal for Princeton during the preseason (as Michael Dye talks about at the end of the preview video above).
Creating a dominant level of play within Dillon Gym and picking off as many road wins as possible is the difference between sweating out a postseason berth late in the season and positioning yourself on the opposite side of the bracket of Penn State.
Princeton will open its season Tuesday, Jan. 29, at UC-Santa Barbara, which is currently ranked 10th nationally. The Tigers travel to No. 12 UC-San Diego the next night, and then will return to the east coast to prepare for the league schedule. EIVA play will open with an intriguing Feb. 8 date at George Mason, which the home schedule begins Feb. 12 against Rutgers-Newark.