OWINGS MILLS, Md. - To be the best, you have to beat the best. And that is exactly what is on the table this season for the Stevenson men's volleyball team. If the Mustangs want to get back to the NCAA Division III Men's Volleyball Championship, they are going to have to upset some of the nation's elite.
The Mustangs entered last season after a magical Final Four run at the NCAA Tournament in 2016, only to fall short in the Continental Volleyball Conference (CVC) semifinals. This season, Stevenson moves to the Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) where the team is the unanimous favorite to win the inaugural championship.
Despite being the only storied program in the new conference, the Mustangs are not taking it lightly. The number one thing on their minds is to win the conference tournament and make it back to the big dance.
"We have two team goals," said second-year head coach Aldia Berzins. "The first is to win the MAC. It is never easy because there is a belief in men's volleyball, especially Division III, that teams are even. I don't think any of the matches will be easy."
Three of the seven teams in the MAC are entering just their second season while the other three teams will begin their inaugural seasons this year. Messiah is one of the inaugural programs but has been competing at the club level for over 20 years. Meanwhile Misericorida is led in its first year by the first All-American in Stevenson men's volleyball program history, Rob Wingert '16.
The players were hesitant when they learned they would be leaving the highly competitive CVC, but having the automatic bid has helped. The Mustangs were also worried about the strength of schedule of the new conference but know that they will have their hands full with the out of conference schedule.
"The other goal is to be above .500 out of conference," Berzins stated. "With the MAC being new, we wanted to play some top-10 teams so I scheduled six of the 10 top teams from last year's rankings. So that is why our goal is realistic, to play above .500 out of conference. We don't have one easy out of conference opponent."
On the schedule is preseason ranked No. 1 Springfield, No. 3 SUNY New Paltz, No. 4 Vassar, No. 6 Juniata, No. 8 UC Santa Cruz, No. 12 MIT, No. 13 Hunter and No. 14 Marymount (Va.). Eastern Mennonite is receiving votes.
The schedule may be daunting but the players welcome it. Despite having five freshmen on the roster, the Mustangs are ready for the tough competition.
"It is definitely big for us playing a lot of competitive teams, especially with our brand new conference," said junior co-captain Jason Gardner. "So playing those teams, especially early, we will see how we stack up against them later in the year and give us something to build to. We have a lot of freshmen who don't know what the level of competition is so playing teams like New Paltz and Springfield right away with help out a lot of our guys."
Leading the team this year along with Gardner is senior Alex Klunk and junior Landon Shorts. Berzins says he is looking to the three of them for leadership, which they bring in different ways. As the older player, Klunk brings a more natural leadership according to the coach while Gardner is more of a quiet leader and leads by what he does on the court.
Meanwhile, Shorts, the 2016 CVC and ECAC Rookie of the Year, leads by his hard play on the court and is working towards sharing more on the court outside of his play.
With the departure of five seniors, including three starters, it is only natural that a rookie may have to step-in. One of those positions is the starting setter, which for the past two seasons has been a senior, including Wingert two years ago.
"That is like the quarterback," explained Berzins of the setter role. "People relate it to that or the point guard. We have a battle between Jared [Chin], who was a walk-on last year and is a junior, Aleks [Melbardis] and Drew [Duquette]."
Both Melbardis and Duquette are freshmen.
"At some point we have to decide on two because the number of hours you have to train are limited so you want to give those two guys enough reps to be as good as they can be. So we will decide that as we go along here."
When Berzins was asked who he was looking to to step up this season, it was two freshmen that came to mind who could potentially replace starters lost to graduation.
"In particular, two guys. Logan Smiley, he has to replace Michael Fehrs. I think he will step up. He played for a really good club and played at a high level. The other guy is kind of a sleeper in a way, a middle guy to replace Nate Ellis, is Nate Reynolds. He went under the radar because he played basketball in high school. I am looking to him to step up and help in the middle blocking position."
Having a handful of new faces on the team has not slowed the group down. In fact, it may have just helped.
"We are a close team," Klunk explained. "We have a lot of new guys that we are definitely going to have to get in the mix. I feel like a lot of the guys are going to play a part. Any person on the team could contribute in any way, in any game.
It will definitely help us out this year, we are deep. So if someone is not having a good game we can look at the bench and pretty much anyone could come in. In years past, we really didn't have that so I am looking forward to that. There is not as much pressure on each individual player."
The path to the postseason is not an easy one. Sure, the Mustangs are the favorites to claim the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but the team wants to make some noise once they get there. And don't look for Stevenson to go undefeated this season. They have a long-term goal, which will include some losses along the way but make no wrong, they still want to win it all.
"We want to win the conference and make it back to the NCAA Tournament and pursue a National Championship," said Shorts.
The taste of the big stage still lingers for half of the players. Now they know what it takes to make it. Are the cards in line to make another magical run? Only time will tell.