Season Preview: Dark horse teams that could crash 2014 NCAA Tournament

Everyone loves an underdog team that has the capabilities of making a surprise postseason run.

While there are preseason favorites in every college men’s volleyball conference, there are those teams that enter the year with little preseason fanfare but could crash the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season.


Check out the top six dark horse teams to watch this year that could make a postseason run to the NCAA Tournament.

STANFORD
Minus the lone first-place vote it received in the preseason national coaches poll, Stanford and its large amount of returning starters has seemed to garner limited preseason hype. However, the Cardinal has the talent to be among the teams in the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season. Preseason All-American outside attackers Brian Cook and Steven Irvin both return for their senior seasons after finishing last year in the nation’s top 25 for kills per game average. In addition, setter James Shaw in 2013 led all freshmen in the nation averaging 10.48 assist per game. If Stanford can continue to show the same improvements it had last year under coach John Kosty, the Cardinal may make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years.

PRINCETON
Princeton is the only other team besides Penn State in the last 20 years to win the EIVA championship. The only problem with that stat for Princeton is some of its players weren’t even in kindergartner when the Tigers reached the 1998 NCAA Tournament. That could all change this season as Princeton returns all but one starter from a team that last season reached the EIVA Tournament semifinals before losing to Penn State. Among the returning starters includes outside attacker Cody Kessel. Despite missing part of the 2013 season with a broken wrist, Kessel finished among the EIVA leaders in kills and become the first Princeton player in almost 20 years to earn All-American honors. With Kessel and All-EIVA outside attacker Pat Schwagler leading Princeton’s offense, this is the most equipped team to end Penn State’s run of 15 consecutive EIVA championships.

OHIO STATE
As unusual as last season was for Ohio State, the Buckeyes this upcoming season could once again be poised to make the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State after ending last season not winning the MIVA regular season title for the first time in seven years and getting upset in the MIVA Tournament quarterfinals was picked to finish the 2013 season in third place in the MIVA preseason coaches poll. Outside attacker Michael Henchy, a 2013 First-Team All-MIVA selection, highlights the returning starters for the Buckeyes. In addition, the Buckeyes will have freshman setter and former U.S. Boys’ Youth National Team captain Christy Blough to its starting lineup. Coach Pete Hason said in an interview with Off the Block earlier this month that he plans to use both Blough and senior Peter Heinen as the starting setter throughout the regular season. It’s a young Buckeyes team, but it’s a program that has MIVA championship aspirations every season — and for good reason.


HAWAI’I
Few teams ended last season with more positive momentum than Hawai’i. The Rainbow Warriors had to win four of their final six matches just to make the postseason and then almost upset then-No. 1 BYU in the MPSF Tournament quarterfinals. Hawai’i returns an overwhelming majority of starters from its young team last season, including Freshmen All-MPSF outside attacker Sinisa Zarkovic. The team has also added Zarkovic’s father and former Serbian Junior National Team coach Milan Zarkovic to its coaching staff for the upcoming season. With its significant home court advantage that historically has made it difficult for road teams to win at the Stan Sheriff Center, Hawai’i looks primed to make the postseason for a second straight year. In addition, the Rainbow Warriors showed in the postseason last year that when it’s serving effectively it can compete with any team.

ERSKINE
Let’s be honest, even some of the biggest college men’s volleyball fans would be hard pressed to name a starter on Erskine. This new college men’s volleyball program, though, could be representing the Conference Carolinas in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. The Flying Fleet in their program’s inaugural season finished last season in fifth place in the Conference Carolinas and qualified for the postseason. In addition, middle attacker Mike Kawa was named the 2013 Conference Carolinas Freshman of the Year, while outside attacker Mike Michelau was among the conference leaders in kills last season and earned first-team all-conference honors. Erskine will be tested early in the season with non-conference road matches Loyola, Lewis, Penn State and Cal Baptist. These matches, though, should prepare Erskine for a possible postseason run going up against the other Conference Carolinas favorites Mount Olive, Limestone and Pfeiffer.

BALL STATE
There’s no question that Ball State’s strength this season is its middle attackers. The Cardinals after leading the nation in blocks per game average last season have both their All-American middle attackers Kevin Owens and Matt Leske coming back for their senior season. In addition, Ball State is coming off of its first 20-win season since 2008 as it reached the MIVA Tournament semifinals last year. For the Cardinals to compete with the preseason favorites of Loyola and Lewis for the MIVA title and the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament it will depend on the development of Ball State’s outside attackers. Ball State, which was picked to finish in fifth place in the MIVA preseason coaches poll, is attempting to replace two starting outside attackers from last season.