ARLINGTON, Va. – The Marymount (Va.) University men's volleyball team is just a few hours away from its first serve of the program's fourth season, a program that has quickly blossomed into a strong competitor in what could be seen as an immensely difficult 2017 schedule.
Head Coach Hudson Bates, entering his fourth season as well with the Saints, has pieced together a 28-match slate that is loaded up with 12 ranked contests, 15 if you count teams that are receiving votes in the AVCA Preseason Poll.
Marymount shouldn't be looked at as an underdog by any means, considering it also is one of the five teams receiving votes in the poll, coming in with three votes. And to solidify it more, the Continental Volleyball Conference also announced its Preseason Coaches' Poll earlier this week, placing the Saints at No. 2 and receiving one first-place vote. That ranking puts them just behind the 2016 Conference Champion, Stevenson University, and ahead of two top-15 squads in Juniata College (No. 15) and Rutgers University-Newark (No. 11).
"The guys are optimistic as they should be because I think we have a lot of good players in the gym" Bates said about his players and where they're heads are at coming into the season. "We're going to get some good wins, I'm sure we might have some tough losses, but the margins are going to be closer than they have ever been."
Their strength of schedule boasts several top-five matchups including No. 5 Stevenson twice, No. 3 Stevens Tech, and a battle against last year's National Champion runner-up and No. 1 in the country this season Springfield College.
A rigorous season ahead needs an experienced squad to go along with it, and that's exactly what the Saints have, returning everyone but one contributor from 2016. Heading the team is the Saints' first senior class in program history, Chris Lionette and Tomasz Ksiazkiewicz. Both have been with the team since its inaugural season and have contributed in different ways.
Lionette, who the past several years has shined behind the scenes with his work ethic and doing everything the team needs to become successful, is what Bates like to call the 'glue' of the team.
"Chris has been the 'glue' guy, when we're on road trips, he's always picking everybody up, being a goof ball on the bus, he's just awesome," Bates said. "He's a hard worker, and will come into the gym every single day and knows he probably won't earn a position that day but he's going to help make everyone better in the gym."
Ksiazkiewicz returns as the program's first AVCA All-American in 2016, while also being named All-CVC and CVC All-Tournament. With a very decorated career stat line, the Poland native led the CVC last season in solo blocks with 24. Additionally, his power on the offensive end placed him third in hitting percentage (.407) and ninth in kills (214).
"(Tom) has always been physically the best player on the team," Bates said. "He's becoming more of that clutch guy. If he's back in the service line and the game is close, we can tell him to go back there and rip a couple serves. He's learned that risk-reward is good as long as you know what the smart risk is. Tom has really done a great job of studying the game and becoming a smart volleyball player in his four years."
There is plenty of experience beyond that including the return of juniors TJ Wiechecki and Graham Clark. Wiechecki, a 6-4 opposite, was a force on the offensive end with a CVC-leading 3.69 kills per set for 332 kills on the season. Clark, a 6-7 middle blocker, ranked atop the CVC much of the season last year in hitting percentage before dropping to No. 2 by the end of the year with an impressive .419.
"It's great to have options in the middle position," Bates said about having Steranka and Shahan rotating in when needed. "Remington is a middle attacker that can come in if Tom or Graham are struggling and we throw him in and he's hitting at just as high of a clip. And Ben is the type of middle blocker that can go in if Tom or Graham are struggling on the defensive side of the ball and gets the same amount, if not more blocks per set."
Coming across from the left side is sophomore Eric Wiles, a 6-1 outside hitter from Virginia Beach. He is backed by depth as well with several returners in junior Carson Caudell and sophomore James Knight and a pair of freshmen in Shane Limbaugh and James Safley.
In terms of the setting position, no true starter has been labeled as all three in that spot have their talents and work best with certain rotations. The three battling for playing time at setter are juniors Jordan Pawlicki and Erich Bratke and freshman Joseph Zanelotti.
" It just comes down to who wins more in practice," Bates said about the starting role of setter. "It changes every single week, it almost changes every single day. It makes my job really tough right now, but it's great to have options."
On the defensive end, the libero position looks to Connor Choate to start the season, a junior who moved from a hitting position into the vacant role. There is depth, however, with Lionette and freshman Matthew Hull backing up Choate.
"Connor is doing a great job of taking the serve-receive defensive side of the game and not having to stress about the offensive side anymore," Bates said of Choate's new role. "I think it's opening up his ability to be a mainstay at that position."
The Saints open up their season with a four-game road stand, taking on Elmira College at 5 p.m., today and following it with No. 7 Nazareth College on tomorrow, January 14.
"This year the guys have set their own goal of being at that national championship game," Bates said. "If that's the goal, they're ready to put the work in."