It may be winter, but the Vassar men’s volleyball team is red hot. Last year, the team finished with a formidable 18-13 record on the year, yet stumbled to a 3-5 record in the Liberty League. However, with another year of experience under their belts, the men were ready to take the leap in 2016.
The Brewers’ preparation for their main season this spring began last October during what they call their “non-traditional” season. During this time the team had three practices a week for five weeks and participated in one tournament. Head Coach Robert Wolter explained, “During that time we focused a lot of our time on the basic fundamentals and our serving and passing game. We concluded the non-traditional season by hosting an eight-team tournament. The tournament consisted of two alumni teams, the Marist club team, Hunter College, Sage College, Lehman College and an adult USAV team.” The Brewers won the event, going 10-3 in total sets.
Since the end of the team’s non-traditional season, the athletes have been hard at work for several weeks in preparation for their main season. They began their pre-season training on January 11. Arriving at school two weeks early focused and determined, junior Christian Lizana further explained their intense pre-season schedule, “We train pretty much every day; either three practices a day or two practices and then a lift. Even though we are a spring sport, we are able to get to know everyone and play a little together throughout the fall, so in the spring we are able to get right to practicing hard because we are already familiar with everyone and their playing styles. Really just fitting about a month of practice into two weeks and getting ready for our first games.”
In addition to putting time in on the court, the team participates in off-court activities together quite regularly. Coach Wolter explained, “Off the court the guys spend a lot of time together bonding and building relationships. They eat meals together and sometimes go bowling. We even drove to Albany, N.Y. for a team activity and took part in a Mystery Room. A Mystery Room is when you get locked in a room and you need to solve clues and riddles to figure out the combination to unlock the door. You have 45 minutes to solve the room. This was a great team building activity and the guys
had a great time. I am happy to say both groups each solved their respective rooms.”
With such hard work and commitment, the team has set themselves up for a successful season, and they are already off to a great start. Since the beginning of their main season, the team holds a winning game record of 5-1. Their one loss was this past weekend against Springfield College. In addition to a great starting record, in the last two weeks alone two players achieved high accolades and accomplishments that extend beyond the team’s individual season. Sophomore Matthew Knigge was recently tabbed as United Volleyball Conference (UVC) Player of the Week before also receiving the Sports Import/American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) National Player of the Week. It was Knigge’s first national award. The last time a Vassar player received the award was 2010.
Additionally, senior captain Reno Kriz achieved an impressive career record of 1000 kills this past week. Kriz was only the seventh men’s volleyball athlete in Vassar’s program history to achieve such a feat. Junior co-captain Trey Cimorelli spoke of his teammate’s accomplishment, “This is an outstanding achievement for Reno. He is only the seventh person all time to reach 1000 kills. He has been a go-to hitter all four years of his career and is a very dependable teammate. Reno is a great leader on and off the court who leads by example. His hard work and dedication to the team over the four years has definitely contributed to the team’s success and also to his success as an individual player.”
Coach Wolter added his take on Reno’s accomplishment, as well as his importance to the team and program: “This is a big deal in our sport and it is very difficult to do. Reno is a perfect example of the type of student athlete we desire to see in our program, excelling in the classroom and on the court. He has been an integral part of the success of Vassar volleyball over the past four years.”
The team wants to continue their winning streak as they have high hopes this season despite falling last year in the first round of their playoff tournament. While the team’s overall ranking thus far, standing at number 15 in the nation, is certainly an impressive feat, Cimorelli stated that the team has even higher aspirations for this season. He offered his vision, explaining: “We are returning all of our starters from last year and we feel like we have a great core group of guys on the team. I really feel as though our chemistry on and off the court has improved from last year and I believe that is going to help propel our season. I think a big goal for us is to be ranked in the top 10 teams in the nation. After the first week we were ranked 15th, but I don’t see that as a huge accomplishment for us. I would really like to be ranked in the top 10 or even higher.”
Still, the team’s goals do not stop with their ranking. Cimorelli added, “We also really want to compete deep into our conference playoffs this year and hopefully be in the Conference Championship.” Coach Wolter echoed Cimorelli’s sentiments: “Our main goal is to compete for a conference championship and eventually a National Championship! In order to do that, we must continue to compete on a daily basis during practices and matches.”
For the team, this means a commitment on and off the court. Wolter continued, “Academically, we have a goal of a team GPA of 3.3 or higher and we have done that three out of the last four seasons. Lastly, we really want to get back to be recognized as a nationally-ranked program. The biggest thing we want to improve on from last season is making past the first round of the United Volleyball Conference (UVC) tournament. It’s been three years since we advanced to the semifinals.”
But the Brewers will have to get past a few other teams before making it to the playoffs. According to Coach Wolter, the team has a few big rivalries, which they will look to beat this season, “I’d say one of our biggest rivals is NYU. We play them twice a year during the regular season and as of recent, each team wins a match. SUNY New Paltz is another rival, it’s always a great and exciting match when we play each other regardless who wins.”
Lizana is very optimistic, “I think that our biggest rivals are the teams that are very similar to us. There are the powerhouse programs such as Nazareth, Stevens, Springfield. But I feel that our biggest rivals are the teams that are scrappy and just pick away at you. NYU for example, we always go back and forth with and it would be awesome to get a conference win against them. The same goes for MIT and Elmira. These are teams that we know we can and should beat and teams we would hate to lose to.” Last January, the men bested NYU in a tight, five-set match. They lost their second match 1-3 half a month later.
Lizana continued, “Another big rival is our neighbor SUNY New Paltz. They are always in the top five ranked teams nationally, but we play them hard every time, and I do think we could sneak a win there.” In their lone match against New Paltz last year, Vassar fell 0-3. Yet their sets were all close, with the first going all the way to 32-30 before being decided.
Coach Holton also remains optimistic and feels that all of their hard work will pay off, “I think we do a lot of things really well. We consistently put pressure on our opponents with our serving, and we are typically a team who has great ball control, but I think our biggest asset is our work ethic and determination to want to improve. Our athletes are coming in early or staying late to get extra reps. We are also committed to our strength and conditioning program with Coach Cam. He has done an amazing job making sure we are quick and explosive! Lastly, we also have great leadership from top to bottom.”
The Brewers will look to continue to maintain their winning record throughout the spring season. With a strong, veteran core including strong, consistent play from Kriz and Knigge, the Brewers are poised for a big run that could end with an appearance and victory in the Liberty League Conference Championships.