I was particularly excited to write this piece at the conclusion of the Landscape Poll. The D3 community needs to come to grips with something we all know exists, “The East Coast Bias”. I am guilty of it myself, and admitting it is half the problem. D3 volleyball was defined by NECVA institutions for so long it has left an ingrained sense of superiority within the East Coast Volleyball community.
For the longest period of time the only mid-west programs the east coast ever concerned themselves with were Carthage and Milwaukee School of Engineering (UC Santa Cruz doesn’t count people they’re in California). This line of thinking is incredibly short sighted, and is honestly a detriment to the growth of D3 volleyball in the USA. Over the last two years I have had to check my bias in order to accurately research for this site, and I’m beyond excited to watch the upcoming tier alignment that every program should be on alert for.
The NACC sponsored men’s volleyball in 2017, and in three short years have developed a conference worthy of national recognition. The NACC ended the 2020 season with 3 teams ranked in the NVA/AVCA top 15: Dominican, Benedictine, and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. The only conference with more top 15 selections is the UVC, let that sink in for a second. Further, the conference will have 13 members in 2021 and will lay claim as the largest D3 Volleyball conference in the NCAA.
The Dominican volleyball program began in 2014, and they ended the 2020 season as the 7th best team in country. Led by All-American honorable mention/1st team All-NACC Jack McGuire (S), the team rightfully claimed the top spot in the NACC. Ethank Klosak, George Kougan, Matt Malloy, Troy Kates, and Jake Sidner would all claim all-conference awards as they powered their way through the season.
In 2020, Dominican ended the season with a 13-2 record. They had big wins over #12 Carthage, #14 Benedictine, and #15 MSOE. Their two losses came to Marymount and Southern Virginia University. The Stars will be losing 2/3’s of their serve receive as Ethan Klosak and Jake Sidner both graduate (no word on if they return for another season).
Even so, the Stars in my opinion have a top 5 setter in Jack McGuire leading a rising group of elder players into a senior year campaign. Dominican has established themselves as one of the premier programs in the mid-west and should stay atop the NACC in 2021.
I was actually very high on Benedictine at the beginning of 2020. They had a stellar performance at the “Clash at Kean” to open the season, defeating Kean and Arcadia before losing a close 5 set match to SUNY New Paltz. From watching them play I could see the potential of the Eagles to make some noise in 2020. Their game against New Paltz was one of the most enjoyable matches I watched last season.
They would end the season with a 12-5 record. Their quality wins came against Arcadia, Fontbonne, Carthage, North Central, Cal Lu, and UCSC. Their losses came against New Paltz, MSOE, Aurora, Augustana, and Dominican.
Of the top tier teams in the NACC, I think Benedictine is the most vulnerable based off the information I have. 2nd-team all-NACC selections Joe Lock (S) and Nick Malak (OH) both graduate. Their starting Libero Kyle Vazquez is also confirmed to be transferring (no word on his destination just yet). I have not gotten much information on their recruit class, but even with the loss of Lock, Malak, and Vazquez I firmly have Benedictine in the top tier of the NACC.
Fresh off a stellar season and a NACC Coach of the Year award, Dan Ames has primed Aurora to take a major step forward into 2021. The team finished 2020 with a 12-4 record and quality wins over North Central and Benedictine. Their four losses came against #7 Dominican, #12Carthage, Cal Lu, and UCSC.
Aurora enters the 2021 season having returned all of their important pieces from last years team. 1st-team All-NACC selections Thomas Kovanic (OH), Emmanuel Chaidez (MB) alongside 2nd-team All-NACC selections Austin Bayner (MB) and James Karwin (S) form a strong core being supplemented by a huge influx of transfer and recruit talent.
I’m expecting a big year from Kovanic and Karwin out of this group. The incoming talent Ames has should help balance the offense and provide more options for Karwin while keeping teams honest. This should allow Kovanick the opportunity to improve his efficiency without being relied on to carry the offense.
As of this point, I see Aurora challenging for the NACC championship next year and finding their way into the NVA/AVCA top 15 by the end of the season.
#15 Milwaukee School of Engineering
The Raiders began the 2020 season on the highest of notes. In their first 3 matches they defeated regional powers #12 Carthage, #14 Benedictine, and North Central. MSOE would end the season going 9-5, with their losses coming against #7 Dominican, #11 Endicott, #13 MIT, and Cal Lutheran.
Sadly, MSOE loses three starters in their All-American Danny Martens (L), Ben Pung (OH) and senior Jake Christensen (OH). Let me be clear, Danny Martens is a ridiculously good libero, he was named an All-American three years in a row. It is already hard enough to earn the honor once as a libero, but to do it 3x… he’s proven his worth and MSOE will miss his presence on the court in more ways than one. Ben Pung could hang with the best pin hitters in the country, and if you don’t believe me go watch their 5-set win over Carthage; MSOE will need to replace their starting serve receive to begin the season and that will be a hurdle to begin the season.
I have only been able to confirm two incoming recruits as of writing this piece, but much like Benedictine MSOE has proven to be one of the top teams in the NACC and should remain top tier until a program knocks them down.
Concordia-Chicago went from being a 4-22 first year program in 2019 to a 14-3 2nd year program in 2020. I have heard nothing regarding their incoming recruit, but rising sophomore Luke Vozinelik (OH) is coming back off a stellar freshmen year campaign where he earned 2nd team all-American honors.
The one gripe I have is that Concordia-Chicago’s season ended before we got to the true meat of their NACC schedule, as their games against Benedictine, Aurora, and MSOE were all canceled due to Covid. I’ve been unable to get much recruit information for the program, but I’m interested to see how they progress in 2021.
Concordia-Wisconsin is four years into their program development and have acquired some nice pieces for the future. They ended the Covid shortened season at 8-7 and were on pace to have their first double digit win season in 2020. For 2021, look for James Althoff (OH) to lead CUW as a rising Junior. The addition of Alex Holland (MB) should shore up their depth at the MB position and I strongly suspect incoming freshmen Spencer Herman (OP) will have an immediate impact.
Illinois Tech/Lakeland/Rockford/St. Norbert/Marian
Illinois tech plays surprisingly good volleyball, but their 2 wins on the season prevented me from listing them in the mid-tier. Further, St. Norbert and Rockford were both first year programs last year and still need time to develop the depth and cultures necessary to compete with the top of the conference. Lakeland has taken a step back program wise the last few seasons and Marian is still a relatively young program. For what it’s worth, I’m beyond certain at this point these programs would bounce the bottom tier teams of the East Coast.
First Year Programs
This upcoming season we look forward to adding Edgewood and Wisconsin Lutheran to the NACC and the D3 men’s volleyball landscape. I’ll save their tier assortment for 2022 after their inaugural season.
Document was corrected 7/7/2020 to reflect Ben Pung was not returning to MSOE .
Document was corrected 7/7/202 to remove “Scarlet Raiders”.