The Champs That Never Were

Elite programs are playing with one goal at the end of each year, to win a National Championship. Amazing as it is just to qualify for the NCAA Tournament or advance to the Final Four, those moments can be bittersweet when you fall short of the ultimate prize. Aside from Springfield, Stevens, and SUNY New Paltz – no program has ever been able to celebrate a National Title. But today we will! I am going to examine my favorite team from each year of the NCAA era that didn’t win the National Title. So let me introduce you to The Champs That Never Were.

2012 Carthage Redmen [1]

This team was loaded with talent. A total of five All-Americans in 2012 (with a few future All-Americans behind them on the bench). Led by AVCA National Player of the Year Randy Hansen, this team had firepower all over the court, setter Conner Wexter ran a masterful offense that hit its peak with an Elite 8 win over defending Molten Champs, Nazareth College. They followed this up in the Final 4, defeating UC Santa Cruz (a team who handed them two losses prior in the year).

Along with Hansen and Wexter, the roster featured known names such as Pat Barry, Matt Yanz, Mike Bynon, Jeff Beach, Ty Frings, Jon Storm, and Jimmy Schultz. They fell short in the inaugural National Championship losing in a true road match against Springfield College inside a raucous Blake Arena

2013 Baruch Bearcats

To call this team physical would be an understatement. This team defined bully ball. Severely under-recognized on the AVCA All-American list, Baruch brutalized opponents all year long. An offense that ran through the middles and right side as primary attackers, 2nd team All-American Steven Coniglio led the way flanked by Martin Josimovik and Jack McKee who all averaged over 2 kills per set in a solid offense run by Scott Standring.

Baruch made a run to the Final 4, becoming the first team to take a set from Springfield in the NCAA Tournament battling back from 0-2 before eventual falling in 5 sets to the eventual National Champions.

2014 SUNY New Paltz Hawks

The team that was the inspiration for this article, what a crew this was to watch. Arguably, one of the deepest and most talented rosters of any era in D3VB. Running a pure 6-2 (both setters hitting), this group was all about pure offense. Christian Smith (arguably one of Division III’s most talented & versatile players ever) & John Lutjen ran the show and manned the Opposite pin, they had the Hawks high flying and big bouncing.

Christian Smith was a 1st team AVCA All-American selection along with outside hitter Tim Ferriter, both of whom were sophomores at the time. Freshman Steve Woessner was selected by the AVCA as a 2nd team All-Amercian as well as the national newcomer of the year. Future All-American Chris Husmann and senior leader (and culture setter) Brian Smith rounded out the team’s loaded lineup along with future honorable mention All-American Kevin Nardone at libero.

Starting 1 Freshman, 4 Sophomores, 1 Junior, and 1 Senior this crew made the Final Four- narrowly falling to Juniata College (more on them later) in a true road match at one of Division III’s best match day venues. As we all know that experience, along with next year’s return to the Final 4, would prove invaluable to their first National Championship in 2016.

2015 Kean Cougars

Arguably, the most under-achieving team on this list in the big picture, this was a team 4 years in the making loaded with tons of talent up and down the roster. The program leaders had been together since the programs 2nd season in 2012, and had seen consistent success winning the Skyline (Farmer’s League) but little success beyond that. After a 5 set clash with the previously mentioned Juniata team in the 2014 NCAA Elite 8- Kean came into the 2015 season on a mission.

To start the 2015 season, Kean put their name on the map with a win over #1 Juniata and a sweep over perennial contender Springfield to close the weekend. The roster was full of New Jersey’s finest. They started with AVCA 1st Team All-American Bez Arslani, and surrounded him with Ron Dunn, Ed Jedziniak, Kyle Farley (Honorable Mention All-American), John Cunningham, Tom Roasrio (future All-American & one of Division III most underrated players of all time), and Jake Kauffman (future AVCA All-American).

On the bench, they had future All-American Shady Taylor and stud middle Jared Warner. This group eventually flamed out with a loss to New Paltz in the Elite 8. On a more cheerful side, a large core of this group has come together to form Team Freedom and continued to make a huge impact on the volleyball community after graduation.

2016 Springfield Pride

In my opinion, this is the most talented runner-up in NCAA history. With all three of their Division III losses to eventual national champions SUNY New Paltz, this group was fast and dynamic. Four AVCA All-Americans headlined this group with one more who was unrightfully robbed (justice for Greg Woods).

Luis Garcia Rubio led an offense that hit .382 for the year with all five of the starting attackers hitting .343 or above. Rubio and Luis Vega ran some of the fastest pace to a pin I have ever seen at the Division III level and the other pins were equally dynamic, even if not as fast.

To draw a parallel, this team reminds me a lot of the 2017 Cleveland Cavaliers that were destined to be champions before they ran into another contender that had an unexpected game changing decision- dropping the National Championship to SUNY New Paltz with impact transfer Joe Norman.

2017 Wentworth Leopards

One of the biggest surprises of the 2016 NCAA Tournament was when SUNY New Paltz started their 2nd string against Wentworth in the Elite 8 (much has been written on this site regarding this event). Wentworth made the Hawks pay by taking the first set from the eventual National Champions. Little did the Hawks know that they were giving Wentworth the taste of NCAA success they would capitalize one year later.

A balanced and transcontinental squad, the Leopards had four All-Americans in 2017, including first teamer Jake Reed and second teamers Sean Mullen, Alex Potts, and Collin Ritter. The roster also featured Ollie Oshman, Jon Roat, and a young Ryan Love. Wentworth capitalized on their 2nd NCAA appearance defeating Juniata in the quarterfinals before falling in the Final Four New Paltz for 2nd consecutive year, this time in a 5 set battle.

2018 Vassar Brewers

If nothing else, this Vassar team is undoubtedly the most creative and unique on the list. To put it simply, if the team was a solar system – Matt Knigge was the heliocentric piece that everyone revolved around. Coach Richard Gary and senior, All-American setter Zechariah Lee did everything they can to feature Knigge at all times.

Knigge averaged an astonishing 4.33 kills/set as a 6 rotation middle- deploying him in every attack zone you can think of running a variety of routes. Knigge’s offensive workload through all 6 rotations didn’t slow down his defensive production adding 1.3 blocks/set. Throughout the list we have talked about players being deserving of All-American status, but Knigge is the first one who I believe was truly robbed of the National Player of the Year honor.

In addition to Lee and Knigge, the roster also featured future All-American Kevin Ros (playing as an OH 2) and George Diehl (a perfect candidate as a Noah Prickett all-star). After defeating Kean in a legendary Elite 8 showdown at home in NCAA tournament, Vassar put up the best fight against the eventual National Champions, Springfield Pride.

2019 Endicott Gulls

An annual competitor in the NCAA tournament, the Gulls were certainly disappointed to miss the NCAA tournament in 2018 after falling in the NECC final to Elms. Endicott put that disappointment front and center in the offseason as they prepared for their 2019 campaign. Bryn Lipton made the toughest jump, going from good to great, while receiving a second consecutive All-American nod.

Lipton had plenty of help in the 6-2, led by S/RS Jeremy Doski who could do a bit of everything on the court, averaging 1.5 kills/set, 6.2 assists/set, and .55 Aces/Set. Chad Riorden ran the other portion of the offense which featured hitters Donovan Dey, Erich Roman, Seth Braquet, and future All-American Gabe Felicetti. Endicott hosted an NCAA Elite 8 match where they led the 5th set by as much as 10-4 before eventually falling 17-19 to eventual National Champions, SUNY New Paltz.

2020 NYU Violets

Back in 2017, NYU made a miraculous run through the UVC tournament, which is always a murders row. They knocked off Stevens and New Paltz in consecutive days, both of whom were ranked in the nation’s top 5. Even more impressively, they did all of this while starting four freshman – Alex Li, Evan Lindley, Neil Ferraro, and Connor Keowen. After winning the UVC tournament, their reward was a First Round date at Juniata College. They were knocked off in one of the craziest matches where Quinn Peterson could literally do no wrong.

After two disappointing seasons in 2018 & 2019, the Violets were on a mission in 2020. Starting a red-hot 12-0, NYU had one of the country’s most impressive resumes, highlighted by a 3-0 sweep of Springfield on the road (I cannot emphasize how difficult that is) and another sweep of Stevens. Although they had cooled off before the season halted, there is no denying they were a major contender for the national title. Neil Ferraro and Evan Lindley were both honored with All-American selections, which will have to serve as a consolation for their careers being cut a bit short.

Honorable Mention

2014 Juniata Eagles

The biggest, baddest dudes you could imagine. When this team was on, there was almost no stopping them. They were humongous, running 6’6 and 6’7 on the outside with Ross Madden and All-American Paul Kuhn. They were giants in the middle, using All-Americans Joe Bortak and Chad Albert (both of whom were easily touching 12 feet). They were humongous on the right side featuring Alex McColgin, who was jumping close to 40 inches, led the team in kills, and frequently bouncing balls onto the Juniata mezzanine during warm-ups.

When McColgin wasn’t playing, they would run future 6’8 All-American Kyle Seeley. Although he never received the honor himself, setter Matt Elias ability speaks for itself with the attackers he had receive various awards as well as his two CVC Tournament MVP honors. Fun Fact: Freshman Tommy Kesling was named an All-American at Nazareth College two years later. This group has become the face of controversy after the 2014 NCAA awards banquet and then 2015 self-imposed post-season ban, but that should not take away from their accomplishments, losing in the 2014 NCAA Final to Springfield.

2016 Stevens Ducks

This team was spoiled with talent. After winning the National Title in 2015 with four (yes four!) All-American pin-hitters. Three of those hitters returned in 2016 and earned the awards simultaneously. The combination of Tim Ferriter, Chris Vaughan, and Gabe Shankweiler was hard to stop, and even harder to imitate.

A group that played with an unmistakable style and were charismatic as hell while they did it- you could tell they loved playing the game. The roster also featured future All-Americans Thomas Burrell (who was a starter during this season), Jacob Patterson and Dylan DeBoer (both of whom were backups for this squad). This Stevens team made the 2016 Final Four before losing to eventual National Champions, SUNY New Paltz.

[1] Now known as the Firebirds