5 Breakout Student Athletes in 2021

It is with great honor that I present to the FrogJump community our first new contributor, Harvey Pepperjack! Harvey joins the FrogJump team following several years of coaching and playing within the D3 landscape. I hope you enjoy his writing and insights as much as I do.

By: Harvey Pepperjack

In the world of Division III men’s volleyball, there are certain known quantities that are present
year in and out. Even as we head into a season unlike any other, we can count on some of these known quantities. We know Springfield and New Paltz will be top-shelf (if they can play). Vassar will be well coached and disciplined (if they can play). We know there will be breakout performers across the country (if they can play). After almost 10 months without a men’s collegiate volleyball match- it is time to highlight 5 candidates for the breakout star of the 2021 season (if it happens). To define breakout student-athletes, we are looking at returning collegiate players who will be making a bigger impact on the landscape of college volleyball this year, think Caden O’Loughlin of Wells in the 2018 season.

Kevin Duffy – Junior MB – Juniata College

This one is almost cheating. As a 2020 Honorable Mention NVA/AVCA All-American- Duffy’s
name will not be foreign to many who are reading this. He had a stellar 2020 campaign clearing 3.08 points per set when figuring in his kill, block, and ace totals (2.19 – 0.75 – 0.14) while leading the CVC with a .420 attack percentage. Most importantly, those were not empty numbers. Duffy had big performances against his top competition. Duffy had 3 matches against opposing middles who were selected as First Team All-Americans (O’Malley – New Paltz, Braas – Arcadia, van Beveren). In those 3 matches, the First Team All-CVC selection totaled 26 kills while hitting a scintillating .478 from the middle.

I know what you are asking, “If Duffy was already playing at such a high level how is 2021 going to be his breakout?” I have one word to answer you, volume. While Duffy has been an ultra-efficient offensive option for the Eagles- I think he has been an underutilized one. In the three matches mentioned above, Duffy only averaged 3.28 attempts per set, below his average for the year of 4.14 which was on par with the four First Team All-American middle from 2020 (listed above, including Ferraro – NYU). I expect Juniata to downsize on the pins in 2021 with the graduation of Joe Fick and Sean Cavanagh- and have more of a ball control approach. That should allow Duffy to be more featured on the offensive side of the ball, especially in marquee match-ups (Kean, Rutgers-Newark, Southern Virginia).

Having seen him a bit this fall, he is certainly in top physical shape and it shows in his play atthe net. With all the physicality Duffy possesses, he is more than just a “bully ball” middle. He processes the game at a fast level, which allows him to display his volleyball IQ and has helped improve his blocking (where I expect to see his numbers jump as well). With a few changes coming to the Juniata lineup, including a new setter, expect to see Duffy carry more of the load, showcasing his variety of routes, and challenge van Beveren and O’Malley for the mantle of top offensive middle in the country and a First Team All-American nod.

Adam Gulick – Sophomore RS – Vassar College

Unlucky. If there were a word to describe Gulick’s inaugural campaign for the Brewers, it would have to be unlucky. Slated to play an integral role on one of Division III’s top championship contenders, Gulick picked up an early injury that removed him from the line-up. Unlucky. To make matters worse, he had to watch the rest of his incredible talented freshman class (Gavin van Beveren, Steven Koja, and Andrew Kim) make a huge impact while Vassar collected big wins and played in exciting matches. Unlucky.

As Gulick began to return to training post-injury and round into form, the season came to a halt in response to a global pandemic. Unlucky. As Gulick prepares for his sophomore season (if you can call it that) under Coach Gary, the Brewers will need to replace the production of 2 nd Team All-American Kevin Ros. While I don’t expect Gulick to directly replace Ros on the outside, I think we could see him swallow a large number of the 6.38 attempts per set Ros carried last year. With Vassar bringing a new setter into the fold, there is nothing as comforting for a young setter as a big right side who is able to hit a nice high ball during those junk situations. I expect to see Gulick be a difference maker for the Brewers and be in the discussion as an All-UVC performer.

Jake Milnazki – Senior OH – Kean University

635 Days. At the time of writing, that is how long it has been sine Jake Milnazik played in a collegiate volleyball match. If you only follow Division III men’s volleyball, I would not be shocked if the name does not stand out to you. But if you follow any outdoor or adult volleyball on the east coast, this name should shine like the Krispy Kreme hot light. Jake has been one of 2020’s breakout stars with showdowns against AVP pros on the grass court, and BYU alumni on the hardwood.

During the 2020 season a group of Kean seniors decided to sit out their senior season (retaining their eligibility) in order to lay their final season with fellow senior Steve Zarzycki who was battling cancer at the time. Milnazik made the most of his time off making huge improvements as a player and athlete. 2019 was Milnazik’s first season as a full-time starter and his performances were a bit inconsistent. Kean ran a few different systems during that season. Some matches would be a 5-1 with the middles as the primary offensive focus, others would be a 6-2 seeing the right sides heavily featured. With all of the changes, Milnazik’s best matches came as a secondary offensive option while providing rock solid serve receive, the ideal OH2.

During this 2021 season, that’s exactly what he will be asked to do. As a compliment to 2020 All-Region selection Jared Ray, Milnazik will be able to settle into a great role of secondary offensive option even though his big improvements have him more than capable of being the big gun for a top contender. A 3 rd team All-CVC selection in 2019, I’d be shocked if Milnazik wasn’t an All-American selection in 2021 (as long as Coach Ginex has Capp at the helm).

Mason Nissley – Sophomore RS – Messiah University

Central Pennsylvania always makes me think of Blue Collar. Those folks who pack their lunch pail, grab their hard hats, and head off to work for the day. Messiah men’s volleyball is nothing if not blue collar. Head Coach Justin Beachy runs a tight ship. Messiah is going to make you work for every point that you earn. They get a touch on every ball, chase down every shank, and then compliment you for playing just as hard or as well. It can be both endearing and irritating.

For years, their identity mirrored that of libero Caleb Weaver, severely underrated in his 3 years of varsity competition. With his graduation, it is time for Nissley to become the new identity of Messiah volleyball. The physical outside hitter who plays like you are trying to steal his lunch pail had an excellent freshman campaign in 2020. Nissley had big matches in Messiah’s upset victories over Arcadia and Lancaster Bible, hitting an impressive .284 with just under four kills per set (3.89). He also performed admirably in competitive losses against Juniata, Marymount, and Southern Virginia. Unfortunately, he ended the season with a poor performance against Stevenson.

Overall, his performance for a freshman OH1 as a primary offensive option was commendable. Especially, when you consider Messiah had transitioned Matt Knab, their former OH1, back to his original setting position. Knab and Nissley have both been playing a lot of volleyball this fall (wherever they can find it), and Nissley has made big strides. His serve receive is much tighter, which will take some pressure off of the junk swings he sometimes had to make off his own passes, and will allow for the middles to feature a bit more.

Offensively, he was like a bull in a china shop. They do not make many freshman as physical as he was in 2020. To go back to my construction analogy, the kid swings like he is trying to tool a steel girder. Nissley’s decision-making has improved, and I expect to see his error rate drop from 19% during the 2020 season. With Messiah’s young core having another year together, plus more experience for Knab setting at the collegiate level- I expect to see Nissley on the All-Region team and in the All-American discussion as one of the MAC’s premier pin attackers.

Colin Stockton – Sophomore MB – Wentworth Institute of Technology

Likely, the most unknown name on this list, Stockton was beginning to make a name for himself when the season was suspended. After floating in and out of the lineup for the first two weeks of the 2020 season, Stockton cemented a starting performance after strong performances against St. John Fisher and Endicott- and then continued an impressive run up until the suspension. While a tertiary offensive option, Stockton made the most of the attempts he received (hitting .370) and consistently made an impact as a blocker (.92 blocks per set). As we head into the 2021 season, Stockton has a few things going for him that should have him primed for a breakout.

First, he is a part of a “fire & ice” middle combination. Ian Carlson, his partner in the middle and 2020 All-Region Selection, is the more offensively oriented of the two middles and may allow Stockton more favorable matchups if teams match up to try and slow Carlson. Second, the graduation of primary scorer Ryan Love (another All-Region Selection and perennially underrated student-athlete) should open up a few more attempts for Stockton. Lastly, another year with middle whispering Head Coach Evin Giglio can only help usher his development along. Giglio has been able to work wonders with his middles in the past (Alex Potts & Ollie Oshman) and now he has one of a similar size and athleticism to himself during his playing days. Stockton had an exceptionally low error rate, 9.2%, during 2020 (albeit on a low volume of swings), but if he can see his error rate stay similar as his volume increases, I’ll be expecting him to join his partner in the middle as an All-Region selection.

There were a few other student-athletes I considered for these spots, but this was the group I
settled on. Perhaps I will feature them in a future article or find a new angle to approach them. If you have any comments, feedback, or breakout candidates of your own- please reach out to me
pepperjack@frogjumpvolleyball.com. Look forward to seeing some men’s volleyball returning to the hardwood this spring.

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