The 2017 men's volleyball season holds plenty of potential for Eastern Mennonite University, as the Royals return a huge core of key players, including the entire starting lineup.
While the players have a high level of continuity, one of the bigger storylines for the season could be how the team adjusts to Interim Coach Ross Madden, who took over the program just in time for preseason practices.
Madden is excited to add what he calls "new beginning" to the strong group of experienced players brought in by previous coach Dominick Porter, who went 38-36 in his three seasons at his alma mater.
EMU finished 12-12 last year, just missing the four-team Continental Volleyball Conference tourney with a 5-7 record. Madden is optimistic that the Royals can finish over .500 and take the CVC Tournament head on.
"Returning pretty much the whole team means we are already used to playing together and in most cases living together," Madden states. "Honestly, it's a huge load off my back to have knowledgeable players in the weight room and on the court. We have several players that can structure great workout routines and many smart players that I trust to teach each other the right things."
Last year's young group has a high ceiling as they averaged 11.60 kills per set, the most in three years.
The team returns 10 players from that 2016 season, so the experience and knowledge on the court will be of importance.
"That experience hopefully equates to playing well as a team especially under pressure, but we are still a young, talented team with a lot to improve," Madden added on the current state of the team. "We have the talent to be a volleyball powerhouse in the years to come."
Within the team itself, Madden notes a few key players that will help carry the Royals to their ultimate goal. Setter Christian Taylor (Richmond, Va./Deep Run) is seen to be one of the leaders on the court for the 2017 Royals.
"We have great leadership returning from several pin hitters, and Christian, who started at the setter position as a freshman last year, is looking to lead the team through a great season," said Madden.
While Taylor is young, he put up big numbers for the Royals last season, finishing 13th in the nation with 10.01 assists per game as a freshman.
"Christian is an important piece of the puzzle. He sets the plays and runs the offense, while any of our outsides run the defense from the middle back," Madden added.
On the young team, comprised mostly of sophomores and a few juniors, Scott Brigham (Montpelier, Va./Patrick Henry) is the lone senior and looks to be a leader with both experience and power for the Royals.
The outside hitter was 26th in the nation last season with 3.43 kills per set. He also led the team with a total of 237 kills. A powerful attacker, Brigham has averaged 3.29 kills or better in each of his three seasons. He also had 113 digs.
"Scott is our only returning senior and his experience will be invaluable on the passing line," Madden added.
Taylor and Brigham are looked at by Madden as the leaders on the court for the Royals, considering their experience and notable accomplishments in previous seasons. Aside from their play, he will look upon the duo to be vocal leaders on the court.
"These players need to be loud and chatty on the court in order to keep the team on the same page," said Madden.
Among the many returners, there are notable players that put up outstanding numbers last year for the Royals.
Outside hitter Tim Callahan (Harrisburg, Pa./Central Dauphin) notched 99 kills, averaging 2.06 per set. The experienced junior will be looked upon as an offensive leader this upcoming season.
Sophomore Travis Abele (Mechanicsville, Va./Lee-Davis) came onto the scene last season and made an immediate impact. He landed 183 kills in his freshman season (2.47 per set) and led the team with 149 digs. He will look to have his role increased and to put up higher numbers as he improves on the court for the Royals.
Another player expecting to take an offensive leadership role is outside hitter William Ragland (North Chesterfield, Va./Thomas Dale). The junior collected 149 kills and 141 digs for the Royals last season.
Junior Dan Lutz (Greencastle, Pa./Greencastle-Antrim) and sophomore R.J. Ocampo (Virginia Beach, Va./First Colonial) will not get many breaks on a team thin in middles. Lutz notched 102 kills and 64 blocks last season, displaying a major impact on both sides of the net.
Also back is junior libero Micah Buller (Richmond, Va./Douglas Freeman), who was third on last year's balanced team with 137 digs.
With a full set of returning starters, Madden expects to simply work his newcomers into positions of need. One such adjustment is Sean Wright (Glen Allen, Va./Deep Run), who is learning a role as the backup setter.
Madden is optimistic, claiming one of the main goals for the team is to stay healthy for the entirety of the season.
"I believe we will be a very sound group overall and if we take care of ourselves and remain injury free, we can fill in the cracks and be very hard to beat," Madden added.
The goals are set high for the Royals, per Madden, and the formula is simple, yet important for the team to reach the CVC Tournament, a feat that has been challenging in seasons past.
"If we want to make the CVC for the first time we need to stay healthy and happy as a team through the cold winter months," Madden stated. "When the CVC season and then tournament finally rolls around, the team that still has fire in their belly and passion for the game in their heart will come out on top."
Madden believes that the chances for the experienced team are promising, but will require a focused group effort in order to carry out the ultimate goal.
"The men are excited for the fresh start they have with a new coach," Madden added. "I'd love to help develop a sense of pride within our volleyball team that spreads to the school and community, and I feel like we are building on something very good."
The Royals start their 2017 campaign on Saturday with a doubleheader against Emmanuel (Ga.) and future CVC-rival Southern Virginia. The first match starts at 10:00am.
--- by Jake Brown, Sports Information Intern