The Volley Hall of Fame Morgan Classic is more than just a regular non-conference tournament for Princeton coach Sam Shweisky and his players.
With Princeton vying for a spot in the EIVA Tournament, Shweisky said in an interview with Off the Block earlier this week that he is using the Morgan Classic as a chance to give his team a tournament experience before potentially competing in the conference tournament.
Princeton will open the Morgan Classic with a semifinal match against Concordia-Irvine, the defending-NAIA national champion, on Friday. The winner of that match will advance to the play in the championship match Saturday against the winner of the other semifinal match between Springfield and UC Santa Cruz.
Check out Off the Block’s complete interview with Shweisky as the coach discusses the upcoming Morgan Classic, his team’s improvement since the start of the season and the possibility that Princeton can dethrone Penn State as the EIVA champions this year.
Off the Block: Coach, this weekend you are playing in the Volleyball Hall of Fame Morgan Classic and opening up the tournament with a semifinal match against Concordia. What’s your thoughts on the tournament and that upcoming match?
Sam Shweisky, Princeton coach: This is something that we’ve wanted to be a part of for a while. [Springfield coach] Charlie Sullivan is a good friend, and they have a fantastic program at Springfield. The Hall of Fame classic is a very reputable event. It’s a great event. … We feel fortunate to be invited and that the dates worked out this year. We’re excited to be a part of it because we don’t get to play in many tournaments. So it’s a fun feel and vibe. Your playing in the semis trying to get into the finals. That’s a cool feeling.
OTB: This is the second time you’ve played Concordia this season after losing to them in five games in January. How much do you feel your team has improved in the last three weeks since playing Concordia?
SS: I feel like we’ve played a lot of volleyball. We went five with IPFW, went five with Ball State, went five with Harvard and then three with Sacred Heart. Five-set matches, they do a lot. It’s a lot of volleyball and a lot of reps. There has been a lot of film that we’ve been able to breakdown and improve. We are starting to get better and grinding and groveling for points. We are realizing that coverage and being discplined in our blocking systems really make a difference. We lost a couple of those five-set matches 15-13 in the fifth. So we’ve started saying at practice that this could be the difference of two points. We start realizing that makes a big difference. I’ve believed we’ve improved a great deal. You would assume Concordia has improved as well so that’s always the fun thing about matching up again. We are not expecting to play the same Concordia team we played three weeks ago.
OTB: Your team last week was able to get its first win of the season after starting 0-5. How important was it for you going into this tournament to get your first victory of the year and snap that losing streak?
SS: We try not to look at wins and losses in general. We try to look more process and how we are playing and improving. When we do look at wins and losses we are more focused on in-conference. In men’s volleyball you can pick your non-conference schedule so there has been some years that we’ve played a really light schedule and we’ve had a ton of wins. We tried to pick a tough schedule and we were tested and battled. At the end of the day our goal is to make it into the EIVA Tournament, and be the strongest we can be and make a run to end up in the Final Four. Getting a win is important but getting a win in league is something we focus on. … That’s how we view this weekend. Winning is great but it’s more how are we improving.
OTB: Beyond this upcoming weekend, you have three conference matches next week playing Rutgers-Newark, Penn State and St. Francis. How do you as a coach keep your team focused on that Rutgers-Newark match and not overlook a team that could pull an upset in anticipation of that match against Penn State?
SS: That’s something we really focus on as a staff. I think Sacred Heart was a good eye-opener for us. I didn’t think we played particularly well against Sacred Heart, and I thought they played very well. We narrowly escaped them. … We get that Rutgers, Penn State and St. Francis each one is an EIVA match. It’s a chance to win an EIVA match and stay process oriented. Any time you get the chance to put one in the win column in the EIVA that is critical and it doesn’t matter what the name on the jersey says across the net.
OTB: Looking at some of your players, your libero Tony Ensbury is among the EIVA leaders in digs and played for the U.S. Men’s Junior National Team this summer. Where do you think he stacks up among some of the top liberos in the nation?
SS: His defense has improved a lot. He’s strength is definitely serve-receive, and it’s not just the balls he passes but it’s the ability to run our serve-receive. He was on the junior national team and has trained at a very high level. He understands, and he has a mind like a steel trap. From the scouting report to the second time we are seeing this server, he knows if he’s got a jump-spin, if he cuts it to zone one and five. He’s very good at moving those serve-receive patterns and manipulating it in the right way to make sure that our guys are in the right spot. … Throughout the country I think Tony is one of the best. I’ve had a lot of comments from other teams that he frustrates them. That’s always nice to hear. I’ve been really proud of Tony, not just his touches on the court but his demeanor on the court and what he does for us in terms of our team culture and leadership.
OTB: Moving to our outside attackers, Pat Schwagler is once again among the conference leaders in kills and putting up big offense numbers. Can you talk little about his progress as a player and how he’s developed during his time with your team?
SS: Pat is an interesting player. His demeanor and what comes natural to him is more of a role player. He’s not a real big celebration guy. He likes to just work hard and get the job done. But over the years he’s really become one of the focal points of our offense. We’ve asked him to be more of a vocal leader and celebrate points and really show some charism on the court. He’s really bought into that, even though it’s outside of his comfort zone. He’s done a fantastic job of being a vocal leader and really a physical leader on the court. I think you need that from a guy that is putting away a substantial number of balls.
OTB: You talk to the common college men’s volleyball and they view it as almost a guarantee that Penn State will win the EIVA. However, how much is there is belief among your team that you can beat Penn State and get back to the NCAA Tournament this year?
SS: The last couple of years was the first time we really felt like we had the physicality to go toe-to-toe with them. We had guys 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 that were touching 11-foot-5, 11-foot-7 across the board. We had the passing. We had the serving. We had the blocking. We had the attacking. We had all the pieces. And then we started to realize that to be able to do it we just have to play good volleyball. To beat Penn State we have to play great volleyball every night. I think that’s more what we are focusing on. Not having a lucky night when the stars align and everything comes together, and we beat them at our place, their place or in the playoffs or wherever it is. We are trying to raise our level to a level of professionalism where we are playing that level of volleyball every night. I feel like you can feel it in the gym. You can feel it when we train. You can feel it certainly when we take on Penn State. You are starting to feel that level of professionalism and preparation in every match. That’s an exciting culture shift in our program.