By Lisa Byers
In just three short seasons, the Thiel College men’s volleyball program went from a brand new entity to a contender in the Continental Volleyball Conference.
This year could wind up being something pretty special for the Tomcats, and a quartet of former Crawford County stars should play a pretty significant role.
The Tomcats feature four former area boys volleyball players, including senior Corey Hamilton, a Maplewood graduate, who has been with the squad since its inception. Cambridge Springs graduate John Turner and Meadville graduate Ian Phillips are also back for Thiel. Cochranton graduate Nate Roche is a freshman on this year’s squad.
It’s the experience of players like Hamilton, Turner and Phillips that has head coach Steve Brewer singing praises. Thiel’s season begins Sunday with a pair of matches. They face Lakeland College at 11 a.m. and Hilbert College at 3 p.m.
“Our strengths are experience, talent, athleticism and how well the guys get along with one another,” Brewer said. “We have a well-balanced, well rounded team. We are good at everything and outstanding at some things. There’s really nothing we don’t do well.”
Thiel won 10 of its final 13 matches last season to earn the third and final seed in the East Division of the CVC championship tournament. The Tomcats wound up finishing 20-12 overall, beating the likes of No. 11 Stevenson University and No. 3 Juniata College along the way.
Hamilton played a big part in that success. The setter tallied 567 assists, 94 digs and eight service aces, while fellow setter Charlie Tindall finished with 632 assists.
Turner played in 92 of Thiel’s 115 sets last season and ranked third on the team in kills (213) and seventh in the CVC with a .315 hitting percentage. He will compete to start at opposite hitter this season.
Phillips, meanwhile, will compete with Colin Vitale at the libero position. Phillips led Thiel with 254 digs last season, averaging 2.65 per set, which ranked fifth in the CVC.
Thiel isn’t the only men’s volleyball team looking for success from former county greats this season.
Penn State Behrend’s roster features Cochranton graduates Ty Sheehan and Josh Oertly. The Lions finished the 2013 season at 15-15 overall and 4-7 in the United Volleyball Conference.
The United Volleyball Conference features seven of the top 15 teams in the country according to the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s preseason poll.
“Our schedule will be very challenging once again,” said Penn State Behrend head coach Phil Pisano. “We return many of our top players from last season, and should be much closer to the established programs in terms of the experience level we have on the court.”
Sheehan was voted the team’s most valuable player last season and returns with the hopes of staying injury-free in 2014.
“He’s been a primary passer, strong defender, and productive offensive player for us since stepping onto campus,” Pisano said. “He’s had injuries the past two seasons which have cost him some matches, but we’re all hoping Ty will be on the court for us all season this (year).”
Oertly is also expected to return to the starting lineup for the Lions after a strong freshman season at middle hitter.
Behrend’s season begins on Saturday at home with matches against Lancaster Bible (noon) and Lakeland College (4 p.m.).
Thiel is in its fourth season as a varsity sport. This is Penn State Behrend’s third season. Penn State Altoona also adopted a team and is in its second season. Pisano hopes the continued progress of all three of those squads might entice other colleges to follow suit.
“Pennsylvania is an excellent state for boys high school volleyball, so hopefully we’ll see more colleges consider adding a men’s volleyball team in the near future.”
Another, more established program a bit further down the road, features a host of local products as well. In Loretto, Division I St. Francis University (Pa.) has a roster that bears Saegertown graduates Connor Shorts and Kyle Beatty and Meadville graduate Adam Barba. Maplewood graduate Nick Bancroft and Cochranton grad Adam Roche are assistant coaches for the Red Flash.
St. Francis was 12-15 overall and 7-7 in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association in 2013. The Red Flash open the season on Friday at home against Ball State at 7 p.m.
Mark your calendars
Here are a few dates local volleyball fans will want to circle on their calendars: