Season Preview: Contenders for the 2014 National Player of Year award

Good luck trying to predict who will win the biggest individual award in college men’s volleyball for the upcoming season.

The two National Player of the Year winners from last year, BYU outside attacker Taylor Sander and Long Beach State outside attacker Taylor Crabb, return for their senior seasons. However, the field remains wide open in the race for 2014 National Player of the Year.


With the regular season starting this week, check out the preseason favorites and the dark-horse candidates who could win the NCAA Division I-II National Player of the Year at the end of the regular season.

THE PRESEASON FAVORITES
Taylor Sander — BYU, outside attacker
Quick breakdown:
Sander, the 2013 MPSF Player of the Year and 2013 Volleyball Magazine National Player of the Year, finished in the nation’s top five with a 3.94 kills per game average while also being in the nation’s top 20 for attack percentage.
Chances of winning: There are only two things missing from Sander’s college resume: a national title and the AVCA National Player of the Year. The senior will be one of the front-runners for National Player of the Year and could put up even bigger numbers in 2014 following BYU losing All-American opposite Ben Patch to a two-year mission trip.

Taylor Crabb — Long Beach State, outside attacker
Quick breakdown:
Crabb, the 2013 AVCA National Player of the Year, was third in the nation last year averaging 4.18 kills per game and was in the nation’s top 10 with a .353 attack percentage.
Chances of winning: It’s rare for a player to repeat as National Player of the Year — only happening three times in the last 25 years. If Crabb can put up similar numbers to last year’s stats and get the 49ers into the NCAA Tournament, he will be in the mix to repeat.


Micah Christenson — USC, setter
Quick breakdown:
Christenson earned All-MPSF honors last season after finishing among the conference leaders with a 9.42 assists per game average and during the off-season helped lead the U.S. Men’s National Team to win the NORCECA championship.
Chances of winning: Christenson is emerging as one of the best players in college men’s volleyball and a potential future member of the U.S. Olympic team. However, for Christenson to get this award as a junior he will likely need to lead USC to at least a top four finish in the MPSF.

Brian Cook — Stanford, outside attacker
Quick breakdown:
Cook was fourth in the nation with a 4.01 kills per game average last season and earned 2013 First-Team All-American honors.
Chances of winning: Cook should continue to put up big offensive numbers this upcoming season. The big question, though, to determine his chances of getting National Player of the Year will come down to how much Stanford will improve upon its last season’s sixth place finish in the MPSF.

Gonzalo Quiroga — UCLA outside attacker
Quick breakdown:
Quiroga last season earned All-American honors as led the MPSF with 52 aces and was in the nation’s top 15 with a 3.68 kills per game average.
Chances of winning: Quiroga entering his second season under coach John Speraw’s system could put up even bigger offensive numbers in 2014. The senior should be among the top contenders for National Player of the Year as long as UCLA remains in the race to win the MPSF championship.

Aaron Russell — Penn State, outside attacker
Quick breakdown:
Russell, the 2013 Co-EIVA Player of the Year, led the EIVA last season with 40 aces and was in the nation’s top 20 averaging 3.59 kills per game.
Chances of winning: It’s extremely difficult for a player from a non-West Coast team to win the National Player of the Year, but players from Penn State have won the award twice. Russell will need to put up similar numbers from last season and more importantly will need to have a strong individual performance during the Nittany Lions’ non-conference matches against the MPSF.

Joseph Smalzer — Loyola outside attacker
Quick breakdown:
Smalzer, the 2013 Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. National Server of the Year, had a nation-best 74 aces last season, while leading the MIVA and being in the nation’s top 10 with a 3.81 kills per game average to earn All-American honors.
Chances of winning: Smalzer is one of the best players in the MIVA. His ability though to pick up enough West Coast votes to win this award could be decided during the opening weekend of the season when Loyola plays non-conference matches against UC Irvine, USC and BYU.

THE DARK HORSE CANDIDATES
Collin Mehring — UC Irvine middle attacker
Quick breakdown:
Mehring last season was among in the nation’s top 10 last season averaging 1.25 blocks per game and earned All-American honors as he helped lead UC Irvine to the NCAA championship.
Chances of winning: Mehring is one of the best middle attackers in the nation, but it’s seldom that a middle attacker wins the National Player of the Year. He’s a long-shot candidate, but if UC Irvine stays in the race for a MPSF championship his stock will continue to rise.

Matt West — Pepperdine, setter
Quick breakdown:
West led the nation with an 11.25 assists per game average last season and earned All-American honors after he helped guide Pepperdine’s offense to finish among the national leaders with a .295 attack percentage.
Chances of winning: There’s no question that West is one of the top three setters in college men’s volleyball right now. However, West and Pepperdine this upcoming season have the challenge of replacing its top offensive option — All-American outside attacker Maurice Torres, who graduated last season.

Geoff Powell — Lewis, outside attacker
Quick breakdown:
Powell was an All-American selection after finishing in the nation’s top 15 last season with a 3.60 kills per game average.
Chances of winning: Powell has the chance to make a big statement in the first two weeks of the season as Lewis opens with five non-conference matches against MPSF opponents. The junior’s performance in those matches has the chance to end his candidacy or give it tons of momentum.

Steven Irvin — Stanford outside attacker
Quick breakdown:
Irvin was in the nation’s top 25 last season with a 3.31 kills per game average and was named a Second-Team All-American.
Chances of winning: Irvin should continue put up big offensive numbers in 2014, but the chances of him competing for National Player of the Year could get over-shadowed if his teammate Cook has a big offensive year.

Cody Kessel — Princeton, outside attacker
Quick breakdown:
Despite being injured and missing part of the last season, Kessel finished among the EIVA leaders with 2.75 kills per game average and was Princeton’s first All-American selection in almost 20 years.
Chances of winning: Kessel is the darkest of dark horses to win the National of the Year, but if he can lead Princeton to upset Penn State and win the EIVA championship his candidacy will gain major traction.