Defending champs struggle with youth

by Brice Nixon
Editorial Director

Before the 1999-2000 season even started for the University of La Verne men’s volleyball team, obvious changes loomed in the horizon.

Never mind the fact the Leopards, the defending Division III National Champions, are a hunted team, because everyone wants to knock off the National Champions.

When La Verne lost the services of Alex Lienert, it lost a player who, as a sophomore, was named Division III Player of the Year.

It lost a player who had the size and talent to play at a Division I school, and who could consistently put down a kill.

Two key contributors last year were seniors: captain Sean Douglas and Chris Peterson. Peterson is ULV’s all-time leader in kills and is among the leaders in several other categories.

Another member of last year’s team, middle blocker Luis Cruz, has elected to sit the year out. Cruz was often a big part of the Leopards’ attack, part of a group that, along with Lienert, accounted for many of the team’s kills. Included with Cruz in that group were Douglas, middle blocker Jason Kolodge, who transferred to USC, and senior team captain Dave Spegon.

With Lienert having transferred to UC Santa Barbara, Kolodge transferring to USC, Cruz not playing, Douglas having graduated and Peterson finishing his eligibility, only Spegon remains from that group.

A freshman, however, has emerged as an essential component of the ’99-’00 La Verne attack.

Jake Swann, a 6’4″ outside hitter, has been the cornerstone of the Leopards’ attack, consistently leading the team in kills.

Against second-ranked Long Beach State, Swann had a match-high 13.

Still young, Swann makes a lot of mistakes, as evidenced by his low hitting percentage for the season.

The team’s youth has been somewhat detrimental. Spegon said the Leopards need to be especially sound in fundamentals, a facet of the game at which the team is trying to improve.

“We have to be extra, extra scrutinous with them,” said Spegon, “and I think that a lot of these kids are just real young.”

The Leopards starting middle blocker is 6’6″ freshman Nate Silva. Freshman outside hitter Liko Tubbs also starts and 6’2″ sophomore middle blocker Tom Hilton has moved into the starting lineup this year.

La Verne’s tough schedule has been the source of much of the team’s struggles.

“With our schedule this year, and not having any match wins, it wears you down,” head coach Jack Coberly said after the Long Beach match. “It wears everybody down mentally and you start thinking you can’t win some of those games. That’s our biggest obstacle right now. These guys can play good.”

The Leopards have played eight Division I teams this season, including the present top-three, and five of the top 13 teams.

“Our schedule’s pretty tough this year,” said Spegon. “We play a lot of Division I opponents. Our only Division III opponent [so far] is UCSD and we played them twice. They’re a pretty tough team and both times, the score’s been really close.”

UCSD is ranked No. 1 in Division III. The last time the teams met, La Verne lost in three close games, decided by less than four points.

“Our record’s really bad,” said Spegon, “but I think it’s mainly because were playing like, Long Beach State, they lost in the [Div. I] finals last year. Which is good because a lot of the young kids get to learn a lot of valuable experience.”

Today and tomorrow, La Verne hosts the Asics/La Verne Men’s Classic. The tournament is an opportunity for the Leopards to play against Division III opponents and see where they measure up against similar competition.

“We want to .. step up and win some games instead of just trying to get through the season,” said Coberly. “That’s real important. I don’t know that you can really train for that. That’s something that’s down and deep. It’s easy when you’re winning matches to want to stay on top, but when you’ve been losing matches it’s really hard to turn hat around.”

Competing in the tournament are Clarke, UC Santa Cruz and Vassar. All three are ranked in the top 15 in Division III. Vassar is sixth, Clarke is eighth and UCSC is 11th. The Leopards also host New York University, the third-ranked team in Division III, on March 16.

“It’s more our competition. It’s more our caliber,” said Spegon. “It’ll give us a good gauge to see where we really are. In the beginning of the year we were really soft. And I think the more we play, the better we get. Once again it just comes down to these guys gaining confidence.”

Coberly agreed but said it was important the team not sit back and wait. He said the Leopards need to earn respect on the court.

“We do have an opportunity here where we have four D-3 teams that we can hopefully chalk up a few wins there.”

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Journalism operations manager at the University of La Verne. Production manager and business manager of the Campus Times.

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