by Ryan Sones
With the 13th toughest collegiate schedule in the nation this year, the University of La Verne men’s volleyball team is out to prove one thing: it wants to be the first team to win the newly instated National Small Colleges Championship Division I tournament, and it has a reasonable shot at it.
Head Coach Don Flora is at the helm once again for the men’s team coaching in his fourth season. Flora took a team that only used to compete against junior colleges and club teams into a team competing for a National Championship in the past three years.
“Our fall structure has gone exactly as planned. The guys have really made it a point to get in the weight room and prepare for their upcoming season more so than the previous teams in the past,” said Flora. “Our goals set for this fall have been accomplished and the team is just starting to fall in together on and off the court.”
Flora’s third recruiting class looks to finally reap some benefits contrary to past seasons. What he believes to be his best returning team ever, combined with his best recruiting class, the team looks to improve on last season’s 5-21 record.
Among the returners is small college All-American senior Rob Sneider who went through last season posting 427 kills and a .308 killing percentage.
La Verne has already surprised opponents in this pre-season thus far by defeating such teams as the University of Southern California and the University of California at Irvine, both nationally ranked in the top 15 last season.
The returners include sophomore outside hitter Chris Peterson and juniors outside hitter Jeff Pang, middle blocker/setter Jason Flick, outside hitter J.R. Gonsalves and right-side hitter Sneider.
“I am a lot more optimistic about fulfilling our goals this year based on the recruiting done by Don and especially the work ethics of this year’s team compared to last year’s. I really think we can earn a spot in the NCAA Division I top 15 and also feel like we should win the inaugural Small College National Championship,”said Sneider.
“Rob has better form than most players I have seen at this level. He has furthermore improved his game in the off season in three main areas: His jump serve; his defensive play; his setting ability,” said Flora. “His work ethics are unsurmountable and he will easily become one of the mainstays on the team. He is the ‘ace pitcher’ that you want to bring into the game at crunch time. He is the complete package”
Gonsalves, one of the returning middleblockers has made the change to the outside hitter position. His game experience and court awareness makes him a powerhouse on the court.
Gonsalves, plagued with a second degree sprained ankle and a bulged disk in his lower back, hindered in pre-season training. However, he will soon be healed and be back and ready in time for the start of the season in January.
Another key returner for the La Verne will be Peterson. He was one of the all-around best players on the team last season. Leading the team in digs by unearthing the court for 115 digs and posting 279 kills, (second only to Sneider) Peterson will even out the offense at the net to give La Verne a balanced attack.
“Chris is definitely one of the skilled players on the court and is emerging as one of the team leaders with nowhere to go but up,” said Flora.
Last year’s starting middleblocker, Flick, has now incorporated the skill of setting into his repertoire, adding another blade to his attack sword, giving him the double-edged offensive sword on the court. Not to be cut short, he is also one of the most well rounded players on the court. Proving himself as a defensive player in ’95. Flick shoveled 97 digs off the court and was big at the net leading the team with 23 solo blocks .
“Jason is probably one of the best athletes in the school. With some more repetitions at the setter position, Jason will definitely emerge as an excellent setter,” Flora said.
Perhaps the most improved player returning to the La Verne roster is Pang. One of the better passers on the team, Pang is likely to see a lot of time on the court this year.
“We have a lot more quality players than we did last season and I feel that we can win the Small College Championship introduced this year along with making the top 15 NCAA poll,” said Pang.
“Jeff is a natural athlete. He has become a much better player all around and will help get us out of a lot of jams due to his great passing,” said Flora.
One of the greatest assets to the team this year was the result of the recruiting done by Flora in the off season.
On recruiting this year Flora said, “Our recruiting competition has the good hand to play. Schools like UCLA and USC can recruit and offer student-athletes athletic scholarships that we cannot match because we are a Division III sanctioned school vs. the other Division I schools. Division III schools are not allowed to offer athletic scholarships.”
“It’s a side-out game and you have to be big at the net especially on the defensive side beginning with the block, ” said Flora.
Three key additions to the team comes right at the middle of the net with the Leopard’s acquiring two freshman and one transfer. They will balance the team at the net on offense and especially in the blocking category.
Orange Coast Community College transfer Troy Langley came to La Verne hoping to ignite the blocking schemes for the team.
“Troy is a great athlete and physically very gifted. He is continuing to learn our blocking schemes and may prove to be a valuable addition to the team,” said Flora.
Also at the middle position are two newly acquired freshman, towering above the net both at 6’7″.
James Klimkoski, voted one of the top 50 prep recruits in the nation by the prep coaches, along with Adam Black, will both prove formidable bulwarks at the net for La Verne.
“I am really happy that we were able to get Adam and James at La Verne,” said Flora “Adam is improving his skills with each and every practice right before everyone’s eyes.”
“James is a big kid who can just hit the ball a ton and they are both raw talent, receiving little coaching in the past. These two boys are playing solely based on their athletic ability and just starting to understand the game,” he said.
Black stated, “La Verne is a very strong program considering the school has a Division III sports program. Coach is giving us a lot of jump training and running to get physically ahead of the opponents. The team chemistry is really coming along and that is crucial in order to eliminate a lot of the five game sets you can face if you don’t play as a team.”
“We are a young program and have the potential to be a great team this year,” Klimkoski added, “Everyone on the team really gets along on and off the court and that is an invaluable lesson that you can’t be taught.”
Also recruited was junior setter Morgan Coberly transfer from Orange Coast Community College.
“I think in the past La Verne lacked the overall talent needed to compete with the big Division I schools. This year with the recruiting done by Donny, I feel that we will be able to challenge anybody we face,” said Coberly.
“Morgan has great knowledge of the game. He’ll train until he dies, and has some of the best work ethics on the team,” said Flora.
“I expect us to be nationally ranked in the top 15 in Division I overall. We just beat USC and UCI in a preseason tournament and they are almost always nationally ranked during the season. It was a good confidence builder to start off the preseason,” said Gonsalves.
Peterson added, “For us to have a decent chance this year we will have to improve the performance of our matches compared to last year. We will need to win one of the first two games in every match instead of trying to come from behind. I definitely feel that we have a great shot at taking the small college championship.”
“This year we have guys that could make it on other Division I teams. We are much more of an offensive threat than ever before, but you can’t just be good at one part of the game at this level of play,” said Flora.