SUNY New Paltz freshmen flourish on NCAA Tournament stage

Daniela Detore | Off the Block special contributor

Returning to the national stage for men’s volleyball as the reigning national champions, SUNY New Paltz Hawks dispensed of its New York rivals Vassar.

Freshman setter Matthew Grace led his team to a .383 hitting percentage in a sweep against rival Vassar in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals on Friday in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The Hawks stepped on the court facing the Brewers with bad blood. Celebrating senior night in March, New Paltz dropped a five-set match to Vassar in its own gym. Later in the season, the Hawks were scheduled for one last battle resulting in the four-game win.

With a 1-1 split heading into the NCAA Tournament, all was on the line on the game’s largest stage. New Paltz veteran Steven Woessner and Jake Roessler are familiar with the pressure the NCAA tournament brings.

Woessner being honored with Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. Division III National Middle Attacker of the Year in 2016 after the taking home the NCAA championship, had his work cut out for him. New Paltz graduating almost its entire starting lineup as well as the National Player of the Year, brought in six freshman, with their hopes of another national championship still in place.

Among those incoming players included its new starting setter. Stepping into his new found roll as a Hawk, Grace has surpassed all expectations as he leads his team into the NCAA Tournament semifinals against Wentworth Institute on Saturday.

“The goal is always to raise the trophy at the end of the season. After doing it last year it just makes you hungrier,” Steven Woessner said.

Coming in as a freshman to any collegiate team requires an adjustment period. It’s rare the underdogs on any team can fully step into their role and dominate with ease. Yet, starting libero Rob Nolan and Grace have aided their team back to the national stage in very demanding positions.

The two are part of a high expectation team — the expectation being the 2017 national championship.

Familiar with the pressure, Grace and Nolan stepped on their first large stage as juniors in high school together when competing for the New York state title. With only dropping one set throughout the entire season, Grace and Nolan became all too familiar with the standard a championship team demands.

This distant memory makes their transition onto the New Paltz Hawks easier, especially when having teammate and life long friend by your side.

“We’re hungrier than ever” Woessner said with teammates Grace and Roessler nod their head in agreement

Roessler broke the record for Division III NCAA Tournament single-match record for the most kills in a three-set match with 26 kills on 35 attempts hitting a .657 clip against Vassar.

Seeing playing time on the national championship team, Roessler stepped into his role this year as a senior and continues to lead his team. The Hawks have not yet reached their full potential, however there is still time left.

In 2016 the New Paltz Hawks won the National Championship as veterans. In 2017 it will have a chance to win as underdogs.