Nearly 1,000 people packed Dillon Gym last season to see the Princeton men’s volleyball team battle Penn State, and each one of them was treated to something special. For half the match, Princeton took it to a program that enters the 2014 season having won each of the last 15 EIVA championships.
The Tigers know the feeling of almost. They felt it in 2010, reaching the EIVA final for the first time since the championship season of 1998, but falling in three sets. They felt it in 2012, watching eight match balls go by the wayside in a thrilling-but-devastating 3-2 home loss to the Nittany Lions. And they felt it last season, when they led 1-0 and 17-12 in the second in front of a capacity crowd at Dillon Gym.
The 2014 Tigers are not a finished product. They will need to replace both the firepower and emotion of Michael Dye. They need to show an ability to consistently win tough matches, especially on the road, but also to take care of business when they should. They have opponents in the EIVA that are both talented and experienced.
But Princeton also has the roster that can turn 'almost' into 'all the way.'
Princeton will open its season Jan. 28 at Cal-Baptist, and will open EIVA play Feb. 13 at Harvard, a program currently ranked in the national Top 15. The Tigers have two matches set against the 15-time defending EIVA champion Penn State Nittany Lions, including a Feb. 28 home match, and they’d love nothing more than a third showdown in the league final.
Getting there will take the ultimate performance from a squad that has both the talent and experience to hold itself to such lofty expectations.
Princeton returns both of its starting outsides from last season, including senior tri-captain Pat Schwagler, who led the EIVA in points per set (4.5) last season. Schwagler is as explosive as anybody in the league, and he’s the kind of player that can put a struggling team on his back and carry it to a crucial win in league play. He averages more than 3.6 kills per set in his career, and he is more focused than ever now as a senior tri-captain.
Of course, this isn’t news to anybody in the league; after all, Schwagler is a former EIVA Newcomer of the Year. Thus, the guy on the other side of the court better be ready to perform.
Sophomore Devin Stearns was the breakout performer for this team last season, ranking second on the team with 2.6 kills per set. Like many Princeton freshmen before him, he hit something of a rookie wall late in the season; he had double-digit kills in nine of his first 13 matches, and none in his final eight (though he did have at least eight kills in four of those matches). Stearns may get overlooked at times on a roster with both Schwagler and Cody Kessel (more on him later), but if he takes a big step forward from last season, he could be a major issue for the rest of the league.
A pair of sophomores, Michael Bagnell and Zach Shaw, offer head coach Sam Shweisky some options on the bench. Another potentially intriguing option is senior tri-captain Jeff Stapleton, who started on the outside as a freshman and then dealt with several injuries over the last two seasons.
Stapleton may not provide the same explosive hitting as Schwagler and Stearns, but he possesses a fire that this team might need. Princeton lost only one starter, Michael Dye, from last season; Shweisky is confident he can replace the position, but he isn’t sure who will bring the same passion. Don’t be surprised if Stapleton enters play and pushes this team through a tough league match with his competitive fire.
Kessel is both a two-time First-Team All-EIVA selection and the 2012 EIVA Newcomer of the Year. He was named to the 2013 Volleyball Magazine All-America Third Team despite missing several matches with injury, and he has been one of the premier go-to hitters in this league from Day 1.
And all of those accomplishments occurred while Kessel was an underclassman. As focused a volleyball player as Shweisky has coached, he has pushed to be even better this season. Like Schwagler, he can kill a ball from anywhere on the court, and he isn’t one to shy away from the big moment. In Princeton’s two wins over Top 15 teams last season, he averaged 14 kills and more than 16 points per match.
Freshman Kurt Thiemann may not exactly be challenging Kessel for the starting spot, but his impressive play this preseason gives Shweisky some unexpected options. While providing depth if Kessel gets injured, he also allows Shweisky the option to shift Kessel outside for a different look if things aren’t working. Thiemann is a tall lefty who earned all-state honors at St. Louis University HS.
Senior Davis Waddell played libero as a freshman and outside hitter as a sophomore. Last season, his third straight as a Princeton starter, he moved to his more natural position of setter. While it was his best fit, Waddell still needed time to adjust to both a position he hadn't played since high school, as well to connect with the rest of his explosive offensive teammates.
Now Waddell has the opportunity to play a second straight season in the same position, and he already feels much further ahead than he did a year ago. He has four of five starting offensive options from last season still around, so he will build on a chemistry that is already there.
Waddell also has some young competition in the form of freshmen Chris Kennedy and Jonah May. Kennedy is one of two Tiger freshmen selected to the 2013 Boys Fab 50 by Volleyball Magazine, and he led Loyola High to one state title and another state final. Fay was a three-time conference champion at Stevenson. Even if neither beats out Waddell for the starting spot, they both add depth and will provide a much more competitive environment in practice.
Tony Ensbury is slated to start his third straight season as the Princeton libero. He comes off a second consecutive summer as a member of Team USA at the U-21 World Championships, and he is well versed on all the top hitters in the league. Continued improvement in both passing and defense would be a big advantage for a team with such offensive versatility.
The middle position could be the most fascinating one to watch, especially early in the season. While there is depth, the two most likely starters appear to be junior Will Siroky and freshman Junior Oboh.
Siroky, who will be in his third season as the starting middle, missed the 2013 EIVA playoffs with an injury, and his absence was felt. In the regular season match at Penn State, he hit .455 with seven kills and nine blocks in Princeton’s most competitive performance in State College this century. His chemistry with Waddell was still developing when he suffered his injury, and if the two can connect better at the start of the season, his numbers could improve significantly.
Oboh, the other freshman selected to the 2013 Boys Fab 50 by Volleyball Magazine, is a three-time participant in the Open Division at Junior Nationals. His physical gifts are undeniable, and he could become one of the league’s best middles over the next four years. His level this season is wide-ranging, and could ultimately help decide where this team stands among its league rivals. Princeton doesn’t need Oboh to dominate, especially with the other options on the court, but it does need him to contribute both offensively and defensively.
Seniors Brad Howard and Ryan Poladian bring experience in the middle, so either could be called on during the season. Howard saw important time last season because of injuries to both Kessel and Siroky, and he helped Princeton defeat a nationally ranked Harvard squad at home. Sophomore Alex Schindele-Murayama walked on the team this year; he is both tall and athletic, and he adds to the level of play in practice as he continues to develop.
Penn State has won every title since 1999. Over the last eight league championship finals, the Nittany Lions have won 24 of 25 individual sets. They are currently ranked 12th nationally and enter the season as EIVA favorite. No surprise there.
Harvard, ranked 13th nationally, upset George Mason to reach its first EIVA final last season. While Princeton was picked to finish second in the EIVA preseason poll, the Crimson is the team currently ranked and trying to defend its position as EIVA finalist.
George Mason was a senior-laden squad last season, so many are predicting a drop-off from the Patriots in 2014. Head coach Fred Chao has consistently kept his team among the top tier in the league; this squad may take some early lumps, but nobody should be surprised if it is clicking when it matters most.
The remaining four teams will look to break into the Top 4 and earn a spot in the postseason. Saint Francis is one team to definitely keep an eye on; Logan Patterson is one of the most talented hitters in the EIVA, and the Red Flash already own a win this season over Ball State.