Welcome to the 2021 Landscape Series, a collection of pieces where I (a DIII nerd) look at each conference and examine the teams I feel are worth watching going into the upcoming season.
The United Volleyball Conference (UVC) has been considered one of the stronger volleyball conferences since the inception of the DIII NCAA Tournament. In nine post season tournaments, the UVC has had at least two teams in the field 8 times. In the 2014, 2015, and 2017 seasons, they had 3 teams in the field. The only three national championships not won by Springfield were won by UVC teams; Stevens (2015) and New Paltz (2016, 2019). The conference, historically, is very deep.
The 2021 season will be no different. Five of the nine teams in the conference are currently ranked in the AVCA top 15 poll. The top three teams in the conference last season are currently ranked as the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th best DIII teams in the country. It’s very possible the 2021 Championship could be won by a UVC team.
1. SUNY New Paltz: The current reigning DIII National Champions. New Paltz, like many other programs, benefits immensely from the NCAA Covid waiver, whereby all athletes are granted an extra year of eligibility. The teams core consists of battle tested seniors in All-American Setter Matt Grace, Libero Robert Nolan, All-American MB Nick O’Malley, All-American OPP Aaron Cark, and MB Tevin Skeete. Brendan Spulnik was a breakout surprise for New Paltz in the OH1 position, and towards the end of the 2020 season Chris Shanley thoroughly impressed me in the OH2 role with solid performances against Stevens, MIT, and NYU.
New Paltz brings in a strong incoming class consisting of Nathan Petrik (OP), Adam Brawn (OP/MB), AJ Fitzgerald (OH), and Chris Larkin; all of these young men can play, but will fight for time on a team already loaded. Chris Larkin and AJ Fitzgerald have the most immediate chance to earn court time due to the shakiness of the OH2 spot New Paltz showed last year. With five returning super seniors, a good recruit class, and as the reigning national champions, it’s a fair assumption New Paltz will be around in April.
2. Vassar: Vassar had a tremendous 2020 season. Steven Koja, Andrew Kim, and Gavin Van Beveren were a trio of freshmen who helped define the success of Vassar in 2020. The Brewers ended 2019 going 14-15, and ended their 2020 shortened season 16-5, with a win over then number one SUNY New Paltz and a 5 set loss to new number one Springfield. It’s without a doubt these three freshmen gave Vassar the firepower it needed to take the next step as a program. Senior all-American Kevin Ros, Junior MB Ryan Duchemin, and Sophmore Libero Matt Usui rounded out the core lineup, with Jefferson Waters and Joseph Harrington splitting time at OPP throughout the season.
Steven Koja has been confirmed not to be returning to Vassar for this upcoming season, and incoming freshman Jacob Kim shows a lot of promise to take over setting duties for the Brewers. The return of Adam Gulik will also shore up the OPP position, as he went down with an injury early in the 2020 season. Likewise, the rest of the Vassar recruit class is very strong and should complement the remaining core in their quest for UVC supremacy. This team is young, this team is very good, and this team will challenge for a UVC and NCAA title for seasons to come.
3. NYU: The 2020 season for NYU may have been the making of the best NYU season in the post-molten era. This team was lead by five seniors in OPP Evan Lindley , MB Neil Ferraro, L Connor Keowen, S Matin Bikdeli, and OH Alex Li. This core of seniors was responsible for handing Springfield their only DIII loss in 2020 (3-0 sweep) and briefly stood atop the division as the number one team.
As of this moment (6/9/2020), all signs suggest that none of the seniors from NYU will be returning for another year and NYU hasn’t announced their new recruit class yet and I haven’t gotten word on any of their recruits for 2020. OH James Haag and MB Tyler Flood will need some help in keeping NYU atop the UVC standings, as the next team on our list has taken serious steps in the last few years and is primed for the big show.
4 St. John Fischer: This program had its inaugural season in 2018. Since that time, Coach Stephen England has quietly built a program and culture that is poised to compete for a UVC Championship in 2021. The St. John Fischer team of All-American OH Josh Bigford, All-American Libero David Cerqua, MB Eric Betivegna, MB Ivan Lopez, OH Martin Hackford, Setter Paul Hackford, and OPP Matt Beiter was poised to make some noise in the 2020 UVC tournament. They went 1-1 against two of the top 3 teams in the conference, a 5 set loss to Vassar, and 5 set win over then #1 NYU.
This next year I believe St. John Fischer will take the final step towards being considered a UVC powerhouse. Jake Baker of Burnt Hills is the first SJF commitment of 2021; he should compete for the OH2 spot as I do believe he has the talent to contribute as a freshmen. I believe, currently, SJF is the third best team in the conference. I don’t believe the space between them, Vassar, and New Paltz is as great as it once was though. I would not be shocked to see them in the UVC Final this season, and I would not be shocked to see them voted into the top five of the NVA/AVCA coaches poll.
5. MIT: As of this point, MIT serves as the gatekeeper of the UVC. Honestly, I could even expand their gatekeeper status to the rest of Division III. They’ve been a solid program since the days of NECVA, and somehow every year they always seem to have one of the best team defenses. To have any chance of competing with the upper tier of UVC teams (or DIII teams in general), you have to be able to play at MIT’s level. They beat Vassar in five, and showed the ability to hang with New Paltz in a very close 4 set match (loss).
This past season, senior Thomas Nelson (L) anchored the teams defense while earning All-American Honors (insanely hard as a libero). The tandem of Jack Yurkanin (Freshman) and Troy Olivera (Sophmore) earned All-UVC honors alongside Nelson, and the team has a talented young core who after another year of development should be a tough out for any of the above teams. This team could very well be the fourth best team in the conference if NYU fails to replace the production of their senior heavy squad.
6. Elmira / Nazareth / Bard: These three teams, as of 2021, are the bottom tier in a loaded conference. Nazareth used to be a UVC powerhouse but has fallen on tough times the past few seasons, their last winning conference record coming in 2016. Elmira made waves after their inaugural year in 2011 and truly found their form between the years of 2013-2016. They’ve taken a step back recently alongside Nazareth, coincidentally with the rise of regional rival St. John Fischer. Bard… well Bard hasn’t won a UVC conference game since 2014 (3-1 win over D’youville), they’ve been in rebuild mode for as long as I can remember.
This is where I see the UVC going in 2021. Anything can happen still as full rosters haven’t been finalized and we are a long ways away from January. The UVC has always been a shark tank, and 2021 will be no different.