by Matt Paulson
photography by Liz Lucsko
Expectations soared April 9 as the University of La Verne men’s volleyball team loaded its two buses with a sense of excitement hardly dampened by 5 a.m. weariness.
On to Ontario Airport. The destination: The Molten Division III Men’s Invitational Volleyball Championship at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.
After a swift flight to Houston then catching a plane to Pittsburgh, waiting for rental vans while attempting to locate lost luggage and driving three hours to Huntingdon, the Leopards were checked into their hotel and ready to go a mere 12 hours after leaving La Verne.
But trappings of last year haunted the returners. Visions of losing to Springfield College in five games of last year’s national championship incited a new-found sense of urgency for this year’s tournament.
Entering last year as the top seed and the top-ranked Division III team throughout the nation, beating a handful of Division I opponents, La Verne was the unanimous favorite among even teams in the tournament.
However, the underdog third-seeded Pride of Springfield College triumphed.
This year, ULV was the underdog, entering the tournament with the third seed and a No. 4 national ranking.
The opponent: once again, Springfield. Except this year, the Pride entered the tournament one seed higher than ULV, at No. 2.
“Last year, we were the better team,” said associate head coach Morgan Coberly. “This year, on paper, they’re the better team.”
Revenge is a thirst that has a nearly unmatched need to be quenched. La Verne began the tournament clamoring for revenge, but it proved to be inadequate. Springfield defeated La Verne, dowsing the Leopards’ hopes for a national title two years in a row and sending ULV to the Stevens Tech April 12.
In a contest elapsing just more than an hour, ULV secured third place in the nation by defeating fourth seed Stevens Institute of Technology 3-0 (30-23, 30-36, 30-26) in the consolation match of the Molten Division III Men’s Invitational Volleyball Championship.
Associate head coaches Jack and Morgan Coberly utilized their entire active roster in the season-ending match
“I wanted our young guys to know what it was like to play in the national championships,” Jack Coberly said.
Of the 13 Leopards who received time in the match, eight tallied kills, and five earned hitting percentages of better than .400.
“This was the first time in a month our bench came in and did well,” Jack Coberly said.
Senior Scott Alley, who was not present due to his commitment to the U.S. Marine Corps, was the only player on the La Verne roster to not see playing time.
However, Alley was honored by La Verne’s pre-game cheer, as “Semper Fi” echoed throughout Memorial Gymnasium on the campus of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Penn. at the start of the match.
“Scotty’s always with us,” said senior middle blocker and co-captain David Engle.
After winning the first two games easily, La Verne came to the third with a chance to take the consolation championship. Freshman Adam Hilton entered the match to set, replacing senior Brad Evans, who was shifted outside to swing.
Evans played despite suffering a slight concussion diving into the bench during the third game of the April 11 semifinal match against Springfield College. In the Springfield contest, Evans accompanied his 34 assists with four kills and six digs. As of the morning of April 12, Evans was “symptom-free,” said ULV athletic trainer Kira Au.
The Leopards played to a 29-20 lead, when Hilton began setting only seniors. At 29-23, the set went to 5-foot-11-inch senior libero Shane Haldeman in the back row. Haldeman, who has accumulated no more than a handful of sets throughout his entire four-year career at ULV, swung wholeheartedly, blistering the ball into the middle of the net.
“I was swinging for the hands,” Haldeman said, ” and I hit the elbows.”
Three points later, the set went to Evans, who put it away for the third-place honor.
To get to the consolation match, ULV dropped its semifinal match of the Molten Division III Men’s Invitational Volleyball Championship April 11 to Springfield College, 30-18, 30-23 and 30-23.
As anticipated by La Verne coaching staff, sophomore outside hitter Brandon Mueller and senior outside hitter Greg Lardo of Springfield proved to be the most substantial factors in the match.
Lardo and Mueller are Springfield volleyball’s equivalent to Kobe and Shaq. In the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association championship match against Juniata College on April 6, which Juniata won 3-1, Lardo and Mueller combined for a total of 40 of the team’s 62 kills. Of the team total of 144 sets in the match, the duo saw 83.
In the conference semifinals against Vassar College on April 5, Lardo and Mueller posted 43 of the team’s 59 kills on 95 of the team’s total of 150 sets.
In both matches, Lardo and Mueller each hit at least .250.
To combat the duo, ULV’s game plan to take away the line on the block and force Lardo and Mueller to hit cross court was implemented, but the pair found other ways.
“There was no line,” Mueller said. “I just tried to hit it somewhere around the block on the right side.”
Mueller led Springfield with 17 kills on 39 attempts for a hitting percentage of .333. Lardo followed closely with 15 kills on 29 attempts for a percentage of .310.
“Good players are going to get their kills,” Morgan Coberly said. “There’s only so much area you can take away.”
To battle La Verne’s concentration on Lardo and Mueller, Springfield also decentralized its offense, integrating sophomore middle blocker Ricky Albano and junior opposite Clay Spiegel into the attack.
Albano had an errorless nine kills on 13 attempts, nearly doubling his regular season kills per game average of 1.73.
Spiegel put away seven balls for an average of 2.33 kills per game, which exceeded his regular season total by more than a kill.
“We wanted to just keep them off balance,” said Springfield head coach Charlie Sullivan.
La Verne’s staple advantage in the match-their middles-saw little offensive action.
Together, senior middle blockers David Engle and Nate Silva received only 28 of the 102 sets dealt out by ULV.
This lack of looks to the middles was because of sub-par Leopard passing, Morgan Coberly said.
“You got to pass the ball to get kills,” he said.
Freshman outside hitter Matt Cornell provided the majority of the Leopard offensive attack with a match-high 18 kills on 33 attempts for a percentage of .394.
“It’s great to see a freshman step up offensively,” Morgan Coberly said.
But overall, La Verne left the match with positive thoughts about its performance, specifically the implementation of the pre-conceived game plan.
“I’m really proud of this team,” Jack Coberly said. “If we were going to play (Springfield) again tomorrow night, we would use the same game plan.”
The national championship matches were Jack Coberly’s last as the head coach of the La Verne men’s volleyball team.
The consolation win sends Jack Coberly out on a high note, but not before he could offer his final team at La Verne a few words.
“My life lesson to you: Keep your head up; keep smiling; and do your best in everything you do.”
In the national championship bout that followed La Verne’s consolation match, second-seed Springfield upset No. 1 seed Juniata, 27-30, 31-29, 30-24 and 30-27.
With their upset in the championship match, the Pride brought home a third consecutive national title, a feat never before accomplished in the Molten Division III Men’s Invitational Volleyball Championship.
To get to the final, Juniata defeated Stevens Tech April 11 in the second semifinal, 30-16, 37-39, 30-16 and 30-16.
Journalism operations manager at the University of La Verne. Production manager and business manager of the Campus Times.