The last division update I wrote was two weeks ago; and what a few weeks it has been. D3 action has picked up at a frantic pace as more programs begin competition; we’ve had a bunch of developments in the landscape and they all deserve attention.
The NVA/AVCA did not conduct a coaches poll last week due to the limited number of programs who played in the opening week of the season. This was not the case this week, as many schools (Midwest and East Coast) took to the court. Not every school in the poll played, but enough programs showed off their skill level where the pollsters felt confident to touch base. I’ve included their rankings below, with thoughts/rationalizations on each teams place in the landscape right now.
- Springfield: No surprise here; I’m beyond confident the pollsters will most likely keep Springfield as the gold standard of the division until they are defeated. They ended last year with one loss against a D3 team (NYU) and now there is objectively one team coaches see challenging them for this spot, who Springfield conveniently has a win over from last year.
- SUNY New Paltz: My Alma mater, and the number two team in the poll. In some circles New Paltz is argued to be the only real contender to Springfield this year due to their championship corps of super seniors. I find that distinction to be a tad short sighted (as the D3 talent pool has gotten stronger), but this Hawks team does belong among the elite in D3. They’ll start the season as the obvious foil to Springfield, and until either they or Springfield lose will most likely remain at number 2 moving forward. SUNYAC just cleared spring sports to resume activities, and that is a step in the right direction for the eventual return of these Hawks to the court for this season.
- Vassar: The Brewers are still awaiting clearance to begin their season, and so am I. This squad can keep both Springfield and New Paltz in check, having gone 1-1 against both of them in 5 set matches last season (loss to Springfield, win over New Paltz). They’ve probably settled around the 3-spot in the landscape psyche until they take the court.
- Stevens: The ducks finally released both their roster and their schedule this week. They are the presumptive favorites for the MAC championship, but I’m not sure they match up with Springfield, New Paltz, or Vassar just yet.
- Rutgers-Newark: The Scarlet Raiders just opened their schedule with a 3-1 win over NJCU, and Opposite Andrew Zaleck picked up his first AVCA National Player of the Week award. I had Zaleck as one of the top five players at his position coming into the year, and he opened this COVID-19 campaign showing why (28 kills on 39 attempts with 3 errors is ridiculous).
- Dominican: I’ll be honest, I think this team is underrated at 6. The stars are better than they were last year, and I’ll elaborate more on that later.
- Carthage: Like Dominican, I also think this team is underrated at 7 and will also elaborate more later.
- St. John Fischer: I think this is an acceptable place for St. John Fischer to begin the season (until their matches start). I think this teams ceiling is as high as breaking into the top 5 this year, but they must prove it on the court.
- NYU: For now, we are still waiting to hear about NYU’s status for the season. They have not released a roster or a schedule.
- Endicott: Endicott just released their roster this week, and from the looks of it I would be very happy to be a Gull this year. Top 10 team, until proven otherwise on the court, is a good starting point for the program.
- North Central (IL): I think this team is only just barely underrated at 11, as I believe they are top ten worthy. Coach Exline has done a good job of raising the level of play of his squad from last year. Matt Nealon has been a standout performer for the Cardinals since the Aurora season opener, and their matchup against Carthage this week will go a long way towards clarifying the Midwest pecking order.
- Benedictine: I’ve yet to be able to see this team play, and I do not know if I’ll be able to until they are streamed by another program. I will reserve judgment until I can watch them myself, but they do have a match against their bitter rival Dominican this week; the result of this game alone should clarify their standing.
- Juniata: The Eagles move up two spots from their preseason ranking, as Kevin Duffy bullies his way into the All-American conversation. Reese Ganter (S) caught my eye in their home opener as a freshman to keep an eye on throughout the season. Juniata will be a force in the CVC as always.
- Lancaster Bible: I was pleasantly surprised by the Lancaster Bible squad this week. They do good things system wise, they play well, and they beat the teams that were put in front of them. A lot of storylines are going to be made about their “upsets” over Kean and Southern Virginia, but I will not be one of those people to take away from the skill of the program in those narratives. This team is good and worthy of being ranked. They may not be elite this year, but if you sleep on them, they will give you problems; we all know any team can win/lose in set 5.
- Southern Virginia: I’m going to be very honest, Southern Virginia at 15 is definitely on my “underrated” list… and it also says something about the division as a whole. If a team as talented as Southern Virginia is the 15th best team in the country, then the level of play of D3 Men’s Volleyball has dramatically improved since I graduated (shocker, that’s exactly what has happened). I do not see this team staying at 15 for long, but then again, I’m not sure what the “floor” of the top programs really is.
Best of the Midwest
Carthage, Dominican, North Central (NCC), and Benedictine are positioning themselves to be the best of the Midwest, and the battle heats up this weak as Carthage plays NCC on 2/23 and Dominican plays Benedictine on 2/25. Rivalry and conference matches always have fireworks, and I can not wait to watch these ones.
I have had the Carthage vs NCC match circled on my schedule since early February. Carthage has historically claimed the mantle as the premier Midwest program, and normally rules their conference (the CCIW) with an iron fist. At the beginning of the year, I had North Central as the number two program in the CCIW, but their level of play is much higher than I anticipated for the season. Carthage looks great at every position and Matt Slivinski has so far been unstoppable. Matt Nealon has demonstrably made NCC much more dynamic, Jake Miller and Ben Williams are proving to be good running mates at the pins alongside Jared Moser, and Cardenas is moving up my top middle rankings every match. Keep your eyes on this one.
Dominican has, quite frankly, been one highlight reel after another since they began play this season (please go view one of the most thunderous blocks I’ve ever heard, at any level, on our Instagram page). Benedictine and them have a pretty fierce conference rivalry, which has largely been dominated by the Stars (10-2 all time in games). I wish I could write more on the Eagles, but I have been unable to see Benedictine play up to this point. The result of this match will be telling for either program, I expect its intensity to be palpable.
East Coast Reactions
We finally got some East Coast Action last week, and with it one of the biggest questions coming into the season only got more complicated; lets talk about Kean.
If you pay attention to D3 narratives, you already knew the story of the Kean senior class. What no one was expecting this week however was both Ian Capp and Jake Milnazik to not be present for Kean’s opening matches against Lancaster Bible and New Jersey City University (NJCU). I do not know the reason for their absence, and honestly choose not to speculate.
I personally believe that every player on a roster is expected to represent their programs expectations regardless of the circumstances. Regardless of who is on the floor at any point, if a team wants to compete for a championship, they have to do it through adversity. Kean has a lot of potential with Capp and Milnazik, and they have a lot of potential without them. They have good pieces on the roster and Jared Rey is making a case to be one of the best outsides in D3 with his play so far. It’s obviously not the opener Kean would have wanted, but when you have a target on your back you have to find a way to get it done.
As stated above in my breakdown of the Top 15 poll, I was impressed with Lancaster Bible. Everyone had them written off for this match (including myself), and they still went out and beat Kean twice in one night. I advise everyone not to let their own narratives take away from the success of others, because at this point in D3 there are a ton of talented programs capable of surprising a lot of people (more on that later).
Likewise, I do want to give a small shoutout to NJCU and their coaching staff. This is not your father’s NJCU team anymore; the program has improved dramatically. They may not be making the Top 15 ranking anytime soon, but they are headed in the right direction. The coaching staff has done a good job with the young men on the roster, who seem to be working hard from what I’ve seen and heard.
Thoughts Moving Forward
Things will obviously continue to pick up as the COVID-19 situation improves in the country, and with it we will get more matches to help us gauge the overall talent of the top programs in the country. But there are some things I think are worth mentioning as we approach March.
I have been talking about this since the summer and have alluded to it several times in this article. The level of play of DIII volleyball is increasing. This is obviously my own opinion, but I stand by it; especially based off the make-up of the current NVA/AVCA poll right now, where teams with high talent levels (Juniata, SVU, NCC) are in the 10-15 range of this poll. Most of the New Paltz squads I ever played on were at best bubble teams, maxing out within the 12-15 range in the poll. I do not believe we were anywhere near as good as some of the teams in that range now.
Further, and this will be the more controversial part of my post, the top tier programs in the Midwest are getting stronger, and after watching them so far this year I do think the conventional top 5 wisdom is a little off at the moment. Coming into this season the narrative (my own in particular) has largely been that Springfield, New Paltz, Vassar are the top 3 programs in the country, with either St. John Fischer, Stevens, Rutgers, or NYU (depending on their status and roster) rounding out the top 5.
Simply put, given the current states of play, performances, and known rosters I have seen so far, Carthage and Dominican are heads and shoulders above most East Coast teams; and stronger than a majority of the top 15. Moving forward, I have them both in my personal top 5, and I think they will both end up in the top 5 of the AVCA poll at one point this season.
- SUNY New Paltz
This is how I see the top 5 right now, it’s obviously much different from the coach’s poll, but I do think Carthage and Dominican play at this level. Whether they execute or not is up to them, if Benedictine and NCC topple them after I post this, more power to them. Just mean’s there are more strong programs emerging, and it gives you readers something to laugh about for a while!
Till the next poll!
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