There were maybe 40 plus DIII teams when I started playing in college (2008). Springfield and Juniata … these were the powerhouse schools. They played DI schedules while virtually guaranteeing recruits a bid to play for a DIII National Championship via the Molten Tournament. Of the 15 Molten Championships that occurred, Springfield and Juniata won 6 championships each. The Molten Tournament itself wasn’t perfect (host automatically getting a bid), but it gave DIII something that didn’t exist at the time.
While these two schools battled for DIII supremacy, the rest of us fought our battles in the Northeast Collegiate Volleyball Association (NECVA). I have to be honest, I loved NECVA; it was the largest single sport conference in the United States. At it’s zenith, it had 43 teams from New Hampshire to Virginia trying to battle for the Automatic bid to the Molten Invitational. The rivalries were intense, and the energy during matches was palpable.
Even so, the disparity still existed. In 15 Molten appearances, only one NECVA team ever won a Molten Champsionship, Nazareth in 2011. This Nazareth team, and I say this unashamedly, was absolutely loaded with talent. Guys like Billy Gimello, EJ Wells-Spicer, Hans Schroeder, Ellis Walsh… they were the first guys to do what no other NECVA team could.
With the inception of the NCAA Division III Men’s Volleyball Championship in 2012, this blue chip domination didn’t exactly fade. In the 8 Championships since it’s foundation, Springfield has won 5 championships… even more telling they’ve played in 7 of the 8 championship matches.
Springfield and Charlie Sullivan have built a volleyball powerhouse. There is nothing bad about this level of success and I commend him for it. Every coach aspires to build a program as successful as Springfield. They quite literally set the bar for what it takes to win a national championship.
Pre-2019, Springfield lost twice to two different programs. The first was Stevens Institute of Technology out of New Jersey (2015) and the second was SUNY New Paltz (2016) out of New York. Let me set the stage here, because the accomplishments of these two teams should not be diminished.
Up till this point, Springfield was fresh off a 3-peat of National Championships. Their starting line-up in 2015 was junior Greg Woods, senior Angel Perez, senior Keaton Pieper, sophomore Ryan Malone (L) freshmen Joseth Irizarry Perez, senior Jason Mascoe, and freshmen Ricardo Padilla Ayalla. This team led the division in hitting percentage for the year. Perez, Pieper, and Padilla-Ayalla were first-team All-Americans in 2015. This team was very good. They lost 3-0 in the finals.
The Stevens team that beat them… Player of the year first-team all-American OH David Evans, First-team all-American OH and tournament MVP Tim Ferriter (a man who still owes me buffalo wings after dropping mine on his recruit trip), 2nd-team all-American setter Kevin Ackerlie, 2nd-team all-American middle Daniel Smith, 2nd-team All-American RS Ryan Seifert, even more amusing… the libero for this match Chris Vaughn was a 1st-team all-American OH in 2014. This Stevens team had all-Americans sitting on the bench because of the amount of talent they had this year. This team lost one DIII match during the entirety of it’s 2015 season (to UC Santa Cruz). This was an all-time great team for Stevens.
2016 is interesting, because I believe the competition in this year specifically was actually some of the hardest in the post Molten era. That’s an opinion obviously, and it’s only formed by my cursory view of some statistics I’ve collected for a future piece of the difference in competition between years. But this puts a little bit of what I say into context regarding these two teams, since they existed in a year when the strength of competition in DIII was (in my opinion) outside the norm.
In 2016, Springfield started Greg Woods, Ricardo Padilla-Ayalla, Julian Welsh-White, Luis Garcia Rubio, Luis Vega, Kyle Jasuta, and Eli Irizary-Pares. Garcia-Rubio and Vega were first-team all-Americans, Welsh-White was a 2nd team selection. Padilla-Ayalla was a selection the year before. This team in any other year would have easily won the NCAA tournament, as they led the division in hitting percentage and the teams young core would win championships in 2017 and 2018. This team went 28-4 on the season… but against DIII competition they were nigh unstoppable. Their 3 DIII losses… all to the same team.
They ran in to the most dominant SUNY New Paltz team to ever exist; that isn’t hyperbole, it’s not my opinion…. its a fact. This New Paltz team had Christian Smith, Chris Husman, Andy Fishman, Anthony Bonilla, Steven Woessner, Kevin Nardone, with Joe Norman and Jake Roessler each splitting time at Right Side. Smith, Husman, Fishman, and Woessner were 1st-team all-Americans. Bonilla would be a 2nd-team all-American in 2017. Nardone was an honorable mention as a libero. This team went 33-2 during the season… but they went undefeated against DIII opponents. This team beat a dominant Springfield team 3 times in one season. How many DIII programs going back to 1997 can actually say that?
It will always take an enormous amount of talent to win a National Championship. These programs demonstrate this, but these programs have been around for a long period of time and put in a lot of work to reach the top of the mountain. The bar set by Springfield was set to an almost unachievable level for nearly a decade.
However, looking forward, I truly believe the volleyball power landscape is going to be reshaped in ways many of us on the east coast will be surprised by.
I’ve been watching DIII volleyball for years. 2019 was a turning point. I’m not trying to rehash how the 2019 tournament played out because most of you already know. Yes Springfield lost in the semis, yes New Paltz beat UC Santa Cruz. What I’m more focused on is the general make up of the division in 2019 and how it’ll affect us post corona.
The 2019 tournament featured a couple things of interest which were firsts in my experience with the Division at least. Arcadia, Southern Virginia University, Wells, Fontbonne, and Milwaukee School of Engineering all made the tournament for the first time in their histories. Second, this was the most geographically diverse tournament field to occur up until this point.
In totality, former NECVA schools have formed a large portion of the NCAA tournament field since it’s inception. This makes sense because NECVA was essentially the heart of DIII volleyball for decades. Going back to the first NCAA championship for DIII, there have been 77 bids for teams to compete. NECVA schools, to this day, have accumulated 40 of the 77 bids, close to 52%. It got to a point where every year most people could vaguely know what the tournament would look like before the season started.
5 NECVA schools made the tournament in 2019, but this only represented 35% of the field (the average was 52%). This is because of growth. The tournament expanded to 14 teams, just as it had expanded to 12 team two years prior. As the DIII landscape moves beyond the Northeast, this expansion will bring new faces to the dance, with player pools that have largely gone unnoticed over the last several years.
There were 50 DIII volleyball programs in 2010. In 2020, there are 103 and 13 volleyball conferences. Boys volleyball is one of the fastest growing sports in America right now. And doubly so, many DIII schools are seeing the possibilities a DIII volleyball team can bring their school. Edgewood College, Baldwin Wallace, Illinois College, Illinois Wesleyan, University of Valley Forge, Wabash College, and Wisconsin Lutheran have all announced the intention to create men’s volleyball teams.
USA Volleyball has been relentless in its pursuit to create opportunities for young men to play volleyball in America. As more high schools across the country pick up boys volleyball, more colleges will look into forming teams. Trees grow upward, and so from high school to college, DIII will expand faster than I think most of us can anticipate.
Moving forward, please keep an eye out for my landscape series, where I’ll analyze each conference in DIII going into 2020.