This past week I appeared on the Long Island Volleyball Podcast, where I got to speak on a few subjects regarding D3, my time in it, and a few thoughts on the upcoming season (fingers crossed we have one). Thank you to Cameron and Mike for having me, and I encourage anyone in the New York Volleyball community to check out the work they do highlighting the volleyball scene in Long Island (apologies Coach Bonilla, I aged you by about ten years thinking you played in the 70’s!)
You can find their podcast here, where you can here me say the word “actively” a billion times, and their blog here!
I was asked who I saw as some of the potential top teams in the country this year, and safe to say it inspired me to write this way-to-early projection. While they asked who my top 5 were (this changes constantly as I get more information daily until actual matches start), I began to wonder if my top 5 really mattered that much after the fact. While rankings matter to a certain degree, even after talking about it on the podcast I began to reexamine what truly mattered; who has the best shot of winning the NCAA Championship.
15 Teams are ranked every season in the AVCA poll, but they are mostly just for bragging rights. Going back to 2011, the most talented teams are the ones winning the Championship. The Cinderella story of unranked UC Santa Cruz team last year is the outlier to this rule, and their run ended with a one-sided 3-1 loss to New Paltz. You need championship level talent to win championships.
This is equal part mentality as it is performance, as I too often find teams just trying to make the tournament as opposed to thinking they can win it. The truth of the matter is most teams have a very good gauge of their own talent level, and most teams know where their on court performance will have them end up (they may not admit it, but it’s true). It is not a cruel statement to admit some teams are more talented than others, it is just honest. It is what makes underdog stories so appealing, because we know 99 times out of 100 what the result is most likely going to be.
These are the teams I see as having the best odds at winning the NCAA title coming into the season, based off talent, performance, and mentality. They are not listed in any order (I did not rank them), I will let the AVCA Poll do that. But I do believe the NCAA Championship runs through these programs in 2021.
Springfield’s 2020 squad featured 4 All-Americans in Brandow, Parker, Lily, and Anderson with York being an Honorable Selection. Further, they are rumored to be acquiring two impact transfers in Nate Reynolds (MB Stevenson) and All-American Jeremy Torres (OH Elms) while also securing the setting talents of incoming freshmen Austin Richards. They were already the consensus #1 team at the end of last season and will be an early favorite to win the national championship.
Reigning national champion SUNY New Paltz is said to be returning Grace, O’Malley, Nolan, Skeete, and Caark to their roster for one more year. New Paltz began 2020 as the consensus #1 team, but after consecutive 5-set losses to Vassar and Springfield they found themselves looking up at rival Springfield. A 5-set win over NYU in late March showed the grit and resilience this roster is capable of. Grace, O’Malley, and Caark are the best players at their positions as of now, and with incoming freshmen AJ Fitzgerald and Chris Larkin adding talented depth to the OH positions, New Paltz has reloaded for 2021 and is in a better spot than they were in 2020.
Van Beveren, Duchemin, Kim, Usui, and Gulick is already a formidable enough line-up on its own. The recruit class the brewers brought in is talented, and they should be able to replace both Steven Koja (S) and Kevin Ros (OH) if needed. The Brewers proved they were a top tier program last year with an incredibly young team. An extra year of development will only solidify their placement in the upper tier of D3, and they are good enough to win both the UVC and NCAA Championship.
St. John Fischer
I think the Cardinals take a huge leap forward in program development this season. Incoming recruit Jake Baker headlines a strong recruit class and should solidify the OH2 role after preseason. With Josh Bigford as the OH1, St. John Fischer will most likely have the best OH tandem in the UVC (if not the country). David Cerqua, in my opinion, takes over the mantle of best libero in the country, and Paul Hackford is incredibly underrated. The team doesn’t get the same level of offense like New Paltz and Vaasar (or even Springfield) from their Middles, and will probably start out very pin heavy. The team is talented enough to win the UVC, and if you can win the UVC you can compete for the National Championship. The problem for SJF is while New Paltz, Springfield, and Vassar have upgraded/replaced their holes from last season, SJF doesn’t quite yet have the middle play to match them.
Steven’s has been a perennial NCAA semi-finalist for years. Even with Dorywalski retiring, the program has strong systems in place to continue facilitating high end performance. The Ducks will retain most of their starting line-up, but David Lehman so far does not appear to be returning. Stevens is going to need someone to step into that role, as each team above has multiple players on their rosters capable of taking over a game. While I believe they are favored to win their conference, I believe making it to the last game in April might be a stretch in 2021.
This is easily my biggest question mark on the season so far (outside of covid canceling everything). As I discussed in the landscape series, Kean will be returning a large crop of super seniors for the 2021 season, this coincides with the stellar first season of OH Jared Rey and a large incoming freshmen class. Kean will have a lot of talent to play with, probably more than most other programs in the country. The problem is they need to prove they are better than any of Springfield, Vassar or New Paltz (at least in my opinion). They likely will win the CVC, but they cannot settle for that. They will be a top 10 team this season and will likely appear in the top 5 at some point. The questions are, do they think they can win a National Championship, and do they want to. I look forward to seeing their answers.