Season Preview: Dark horse teams that may crash 2015 NCAA Tournament

There are the preseason favorites, and then there are those teams that bust everyone’s bracket in the postseason.

Several teams enter the start of the college men’s volleyball season this weekend 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 and reach the NCAA Tournament.

IPFW
It’s only fitting in final season for Hall of Fame coach Arnie Ball that IPFW would the underdogs to win the MIVA. Ball throughout his more than 30 years on the IPFW sidelines has thrived at his team’s being the underdog and exceeding expectations. The Mastodons return a majority of starters from last year’s team that won the program’s first postseason match since 2007 and reached MIVA Tournament semifinals. Among those returning starters includes two All-MIVA players, setter Omar Rivera and opposite Andrew Sellan. In addition, IPFW added to its roster freshman outside attacker Alex Harthaller, a highly touted 6-foot-6 recruit from Austria. The Mastodons were picked to finish No. 3 in the conference’s preseason poll. However, this team has all the potential to make a postseason run and get Ball back to the NCAA Tournament for one final time.

UC Irvine
Coach David Kniffin created a non-conference schedule perfectly situated to benefit UC Irvine on Selection Saturday. The Anteaters will play a conference-high seven non-conference matches during the upcoming season with four of those matches against teams nationally ranked in the preseason coaches poll. In addition, UC Irvine was picked to finish in fifth place in the MPSF Preseason Poll and has All-American libero Michael Brinkley and Preseason All-American opposite Zack La Cavera returning for their senior seasons. The Anteaters after reaching the MPSF Tournament quarterfinals last season also added outside attacker Thomas Hodges. Hodges was a 2014 Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. Freshmen All-American selection and transferred in the off-season from Pacific, which recently disbanded its men’s volleyball program. The biggest questions entering the season for the Anteaters, though, will be replacing its All-American middle attackers and its starting starter from last year’s team.

UCLA
Never count out a team coached by John Speraw — even if this will be one of the youngest rosters he’s had during his college coaching career. UCLA will have 14 freshmen or sophomores on its 17-player roster for the upcoming season. The Bruins finished an injury-plagued 2014 season in fifth place MPSF and lost in the conference tournament quarterfinals. All those injuries to starters, though, resulted in playing time for freshmen and sophomores who are now returning for the upcoming season. In addition, middle attacker Mitch Stahl and libero Jackson Bantle were both named to the All-MPSF Freshmen Team last season. The lack of upperclassmen also did not deter coaches from highly ranking UCLA in the preseason poll. The Bruins received one first-place in the MPSF Preseason Poll and will open the season at No. 5 in the national coaches poll.


PRINCETON
Princeton was the last team besides Penn State to win the EIVA championship and represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament. The only problem with that stat is several of the players on the current Tigers roster were still in preschool when that feat occurred in 1998. However, Princeton more recently than 1998 has proven it can beat Penn State. The Tigers last season upset the Nittany Lions in five games during the regular season. In addition, Princeton ended last season reaching the EIVA Tournament championship match for the first time since 2010. Princeton returns a majority of starters from last year’s team, including Preseason All-American opposite Cody Kessel. In addition, both all-conference outside attacker Devin Stearns and libero Tony Ensbury return for Princeton, along with second-year starting setter Chris Kennedy. Penn State will still be the overwhelming favorite to win the EIVA, but if there is a team able to upset Penn State in a one-match situation, Princeton is capable of pulling off the feat.

OHIO STATE
The rebuilding process did not last long for Ohio State. After finishing last season outside of the top four in the MIVA standings for the first time since the 1960s, the Buckeyes should be back in contention for a conference title this season. Setter Christy Blough and middle attacker Driss Guessous both were named to the 2014 Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. Freshmen All-American Team. In addition, Guessous was the 2014 AVCA Newcomer of the Year and led the conference with a .446 attack percentage last season. The Buckeyes were picked to finish in fourth place in the MIVA in the conference’s preseason poll. However, if Buckeyes continue to develop and improve throughout the season they could be primed at the end of the season to make a run the MIVA Tournament.

BARTON
Mount Olive and the defending-conference champions Erskine likely will be two preseason favorites to win the Conference Carolinas, but don’t disregard Barton. Coach Jeff Lennox in his third year with Barton has transformed the program from a team that went almost one-and-half seasons before winning its first match to being a legitimate conference title contender. Barton last season won its first postseason match in program history as it reached the Conference Carolinas Tournament semifinals. The Bulldogs have all but one starter returning from that team — including libero Michael McMahon who led nation in digs last season. The Bulldogs also could benefit in the postseason from one of the most challenging non-conference schedules in the Conference Carolinas. Barton will play seven matches against teams from the MVIA and EIVA highlighted with road matches against Lewis and Loyola.