The George Mason Men’s Volleyball Team will kick off their 2016 campaign against the most successful program in Men’s Volleyball collegiate history, UCLA, on January 5th.
The team enters this matchup after finishing last season with a 15-13 record that included a berth into the EIVA Championship final, where the team lost to Penn State 3-0. In the regular season the team went 7-5, tying Harvard for the second best mark in the league.
However, in the offseason the Patriots saw their longtime head coach, Fred Chao, resign from the program. After 17 seasons, none of which resulted in an EIVA Championship, Chao left the Patriots and joined the women’s program at Virginia Tech. Weeks after, the athletic department hired Jay Hosack, a six year assistant from Penn State, as the fifth head coach in the program’s history.
While at Penn State, Hosack served as an offensive coordinator for the team, as the Nittany Lions won six EIVA titles in his stint with the program. This will not be Hosack’s first time as the head coach of a program; he started his coaching career as the head coach for both the Men’s and Women’s programs of the University of California-Santa Cruz. As the coach from 2000-2004, he guided the men’s team to a national semifinal berth for Division III Championship.
Since then he stayed in the assistant coach role on the west coast, before earning the job at Penn State in 2009. Hosack has also been an assistant coach for the Team USA Men’s and Women’s National Teams and now is the assistant of the Team USA Men’s Junior National Team. He has been in this role for the past four years.
With a change in coaches, it is often that you see roster turnover on a team with players transferring out of the program and a young squad for the next season. Fortunately for the Patriots, a majority of the team will remain including the team’s top stars in Paco Velez, Jack Wilson, Radoslav Popov, and Brian Negron.
Last season the team only graduated one player in Hunter Stevens, the squad’s middle blocker who started in all 28 matches in 2015. He finished his four year career fifth all-time in blocks with 345 in George Mason history. While losing only one senior to graduation is a benefit to the team, filling his spot on the court will be an early challenge for Mason.
The incoming freshman class consists of six players, four of which are from Virginia Beach, all four of them from the same club team (Coastal Virginia). Bryant Ekstein highlights this group, a former member of the Team USA Men’s Volleyball Youth National Team. Listed on the roster as a middle blocker, he might be on track to starting near the end of the season with the Green and Gold losing their top blocker last year.
Of the freshmen, there are two other players that will have the opportunity to get notable playing time this season. Kyle Barnes, recruited by reigning national champions Loyola-Chicago, and Seth Blevins, recruited by 2015 runner-up Lewis, look to be able to fill the roles of the starters before them.
This year the team will have two players, Langston Payne and Garrett Kollar coming off a redshirt season. Kollar, in addition to Ekstein, will surely be contending for the open middle blocker spot in the rotation at the beginning of the season. They will be joined by redshirt junior, Graham Gresham, who is the most experienced blocker on the team. In two seasons he acquired 123 blocks, the most on the current roster, as a strong bench player last season.
Early on it is fair to expect Gresham to get the starting role on the team, especially with a string of strong opponents in the schedule. As the year goes on however look for the younger players to get more work and starts at the position.
As mentioned earlier the group of Velez, Wilson, Popov and Negron are anticipated to have a huge year, with this being the last season that Velez will be a part of the team. In 2015, Wilson, Popov, and Velez each recorded over 200 kills, combining for 785 of the team’s 1,164 (67%). By far that is the largest number for each of their respective careers.
They will each be set up by sophomore Negron who tallied 958 assists in his freshman campaign last season. This puts him seventh on the all-time list for the Patriots with three full seasons to go. He was named to the Off The Block/ Springbak Freshmen All-American Team in 2015 and is expected to improve with a colligate season under his belt.
Anticipated to be the starting Libero for the team will be junior Christian Malias coming off a strong season last year. In defense, Malias led the team with 165 digs after playing in 27 matches with Velez trailing close behind with 157.
Improving the defense will have to be a focus for the team in 2016. With the absence of Stevens at the net, the cross court attacks will be more prevalent from opposing squads. This will force the back line defense to be stronger, previously one of the weaknesses of the team. Malias will be a huge factor in improving that facet and allowing the team to set up a stronger attack than years past.
In terms of the schedule, it will be more balanced than it was in 2015. It took 10 games last year before the Patriots were able to host a game in the RAC. Of those 10 games, seven of them were against ranked opponents.
This year the team scheduled 13 out of conference matchups and currently six of them are ranked. Of the remaining seven opponents, five are Division II programs in the Conference Carolinas but compete in the same division as DI schools. The schedule also consists of the 14 EIVA matchups, two games for each team, including EIVA newcomer Charleston West Virginia.
After Mason kicks off the season at home against #5 UCLA, the team will head west on January 8th and 9th to the AVCA Showcase and play #2 UC Irvine and #1 BYU. At the end of the month the Patriots return home for an eight game home stand; at the end they will play Harvard two days in a row.
With a mid-season matchup against UC Irvine at the RAC on March 22nd, it will set the team up for a home stretch culminating with the final game of the regular season against Penn State on April 16th.
In the EIVA, the Patriots are anticipated to have their best shot to knock of the Nittany Lions as the top of the conference. Penn State has won the past 17 EIVA Championships including winning 19 straight matches against Mason, holding a 98-14 advantage in the all-time record. In the Coaches Preseason Poll, Mason was selected four votes short of the top spot.
- Penn State 62 (6)
- George Mason 58 (2)
- Princeton 38
- NJIT 35
- Francis (P.A.) 35
- Harvard 33
- Sacred Heart 19
- Charleston 8
If the team were to beat Penn State, in either in the regular season or in the postseason, it will be the first win against them since 2008. Part of the Mason optimism is due to Penn State losing four seniors last year. They will not have 3-time EIVA Player of the Year Aaron Russell, the second all-time leader in digs for Penn State, Connor Curry, and the top setter in the EIVA in Taylor Hammond.
Normally a frontrunner, Harvard is projected to have a down season after losing two of their top players to graduation last year. The team will be without All-American Honorable Mention Caleb Zimmick and four year All-EIVA first teamer, DJ White.
Mason will surely have an advantage with having one of the most experienced rosters in the conference. Also if there were going to be a coach that could beat the unbeatable Penn State, it would be someone from the program in Jay Hosack.
Record Projection: 20-7 (EIVA: 12-2)
This should be the season that Mason tops Penn State in the regular season, probably at home on senior night. Penn State will take their home-game of the series and I believe Mason will drop one to either Princeton or a resurgent St. Francis squad. The Green and Gold’s competitive out-of-conference schedule will surely test the team early, but if Mason is able to top Penn State in the EIVA tournament they should be well prepared for a possible NCAA tournament berth.