It’s hard to believe we are at the end of February already. The season is half over, and the matches are beginning to carry more weight as the 2023 narrative’s settle in. Of all the great matches this weekend (and there are several), Stevens vs Juniata is the one I’ll have on my big screen.
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Stevens Institute of Technology
At the midway point of the season, the Ducks currently have the best resume in D3VB. Their signature wins currently include Marymount, St. John Fisher, St. Joseph-Long Island, Vassar College, Springfield, New Paltz, and Wentworth. All of these teams have been featured at one point or another within our Top 20 power ranking; as it stands Stevens has more wins over Top 20 programs than any other team in D3VB.
This success can be attributed to a couple of things, system, talent, culture, etc. Where Stevens has truly separated itself from the rest of the division comes from their depth and flexibility. Opposing coaches across the landscape recognize the nightmare it is to scout Stevens right now; you’ll never know which configuration of players you’ll end up seeing until the match starts. Even Koby Sherman sat last night against Rutgers-Newark after a rough first set; senior Alex Franke responded with a 12-3-17 line where he hit .529 for the Ducks to help them secure a 3-1 win. Depth is an advantage when you’re trying to make a run in April, and the Ducks have it.
The Eagles took the division by storm in January, becoming the first D3VB team to defeat Carthage in over a year at the Wittenberg invitational. They’ve proved they belong in the national conversation this year, with signature wins over Nichols, Wentworth, Messiah, Carthage, St. John Fisher, and Marymount. Their reign atop the landscape was short lived following their loss to Southern Virginia, but the Eagles as built have all the looks of a contender come April.
The biggest shift from last year to this year has largely been a result of how the Eagles run their offense. Last year’s team was overly reliant on Duffy out of the middle and had no production at the Opposite pin, a weakness which prompted the Eagles to experiment with the triple middle offense towards the end of the year.
The presence of Max Barr at Opposite and the standout play of Luke Hoffman have relieved the pressure put on Duffy to carry the offense, and the Eagles have become much more balanced as a result. Combined with their increased aggressiveness from the service line, I’d say the Eagles are sitting in a good spot halfway through the season.
Why is this match important?
The match, intrinsically, isn’t too important. At least compared to the several UVC conference matches this weekend (notably St. John Fisher vs Vassar). Stevens (MAC) and Juniata (CVC) aren’t competing for conference position.
However, for the casual fan, this is a matchup between a) two of the top 5 D3VB teams in the nation b) two of only three teams this year to be considered the best team in the nation and c) regional opponents.
Both teams are almost assured to be regionally ranked this year based on current resumes and our schedule projections, meaning a win for either program will likely add a regionally ranked win when the NCAA committee meets for rankings. It’s not a given outcome either would win their conference right now. Stevens has to contend with Messiah while Southern Virginia is 4-0 against Juniata over the last three years. A win in this match gives the victor a little extra assurance later on when NCAA committee is awarding at-large bids.
Further, I’d be shocked if either of these schools weren’t on a short list right now as possible hosts for the NCAA regional rounds. Hosting an NCAA regional is a huge advantage for the home team for obvious reasons; a win for either program helps make the case they deserve it.
Who has the edge?
As of this morning, the D3 Top 100 currently has Stevens with an 82.4% chance of victory, versus Juniata with a 17.6% chance. Analytically I don’t think there is too much to dive into here. Stevens is incredibly good at home, beating them in Hoboken is a tall order for anyone, let alone Juniata. (For reference, New Paltz hasn’t won in Hoboken since 2002).
Stevens is one of the best defensive teams in the country and remarkably consistent. Juniata is just as likely to hit .100 as they are .600 at times, and despite his overall presence on the court Max Barr is facing the typical struggles of consistency you see in freshmen contributors (hitting .180 on the year). Duffy and Hoffman are going to score, but Feulner and Hoke are good enough defensively to mitigate their impact while putting pressure on Juniata’s Outside Hitters to score in transition.
After watching them play against Springfield, New Paltz, Carthage, and Rutgers-Newark… I’d say the overly simplistic formula to beating Stevens includes A) pressure from the service line and B) production from your Opposite Hitter. Juniata has the pressure from the line to force bad first contacts from Stevens, and despite his consistency issues Max Barr currently leads Juniata in attempts for the year. The only team to successfully combine the two against the Ducks for a whole match has been Carthage, time will tell if Juniata can be the second.
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