Men's club volleyball set to compete in national tournament

The Mason men's club volleyball team opens competition Thursday in a national tournament, where they will begin by facing the No. 2 ranked Illinois Fightin Illini (Photo courtesy of the club volleyball team).
The Mason men's club volleyball team opens competition Thursday in a national tournament, where they will begin by facing the No. 2 ranked Illinois Fightin Illini (Photo courtesy of the club volleyball team).

The No. 26 nationally ranked George Mason men's club volleyball team is currently in Kansas City, Mo., where they will begin competition Thursday morning in club volleyball’s national championship.

Opening round play begins with each squad divided into pools of four teams, and each team within that pool will play one another on Thursday. The Patriots have been placed in a prestigious grouping with the University of Illinois, Boston College, and Southern California (USC).

The Patriots, who are in Division I within the club volleyball organization, will need to be on their game right away as their first contest will be in the morning against the Fighting Illini, the No. 2 ranked squad in the country.

“That will be a really good test to see how well we handle it because I would say that the best team we’ve played thus far has been JMU, and they are ranked about 14 in the nation,” senior Brian Roth said.

After their match against Illinois, they will face No. 23 Boston College, followed by No. 47 USC in the afternoon. Thus the Patriots are the third seed within their opening round pool, and based on their performance they will be seeded for Friday’s matches.

For the final day of the competition, Saturday, the 48 Division I teams will be divided into gold, silver and bronze bracket play based on their two-day performance.

The team’s current senior class jumpstarted Mason’s club volleyball program three years ago as sophomores and have propelled the squad to what is has become today. Current club president Ari Sinay, Taylor Jones and Alex Baraniewski all began as members of the Division I volleyball squad before making the transition to the club team. Fellow senior Roth has also been a member of the club since his sophomore year.

“We have some really good leadership and we’re all seniors now,” Jones said, “and we have a lot of experience, so we are ready to take on this national tournament.”

This senior class is accustomed to playing on the big stage in nationals, as they competed in it two years ago, coming in 19th place overall and winning the bronze bracket.

“We’ve had lots of big matches and we’re ready to go with the best of them,” Sinay said.

Whereas there are just over 30 Division I men’s volleyball programs nationwide, there are hundreds of men’s club volleyball programs. Mason is the only school within about 400 miles to actually have a Division I program, but club teams are common throughout the Middle Atlantic region.

Most of the teams in Mason’s Division come from the Virginia and North Carolina regions.

The club got off to a hot start this year, winning their first tournament at the University of Maryland’s tournament.

“We won our first tournament, which was really fun because we took some freshman and were able to learn how they play,” said Roth, a Communication student who has been playing competitive volleyball since he was a freshman in high school.

The club also won the tournament that they hosted at Mason in February, and was ranked as high as No. 20 in Division I club volleyball nationally.

“We’ve been very successful this year in terms of exceeding our expectations and being one of the top dogs in our Division,” Jones said. “Talent-wise we definitely have a lot more fire-power than we’ve had in past years.”

Although they don’t practice every day like the Division I team, they are devoted to getting better and practice twice a week, Monday and Wednesday nights, in the RAC.

“When you are at the Division I level, it’s your life,” said Sinay, who recalls his experiences as a freshman. “There’s a reason you’re called a student-athlete because you’re a student first and an athlete second, and that’s your life right there. With the club, you have a little more time to yourself, but once you get a group of guys who are committed to going to a national tournament like this, it’s not all that different.”

Sinay and Jones, who have been playing volleyball since their freshman year in high school, are both glad they made the transition from the Division I team to the club team. Not only do they have more time, but they also appreciate the camaraderie among the members of the club and the ability to play the game more for fun than for responsibility.

“It’s almost their [Division I team] duty to represent the school, it’s our choice to represent the school,” Jones said.

Despite the team’s recent success and hard work, they still believe there is room for improvement both in terms of limiting unforced errors and in closing out close games.

To address these issues and to provide outside leadership, the team is bringing in a coach to help get them through Nationals successfully.  But he is not just any coach.

He is Bill Neville, the father of current club team member Ramsey Neville, and he has coached two national teams and has even won an Olympic gold medal. He has over 30 years of experience in the volleyball community and is a world-renowned voice on the game. Neville has been the National Commissioner of Coaching Education at USA Volleyball for the past 11 years.

“He’s known throughout the volleyball world and we’re lucky enough to have him come all the way from Oregon to coach us,” Roth said. “Most teams try to get an alumni to come help, but we have the privilege and honor of playing under a man who has coached Olympic teams.”

This is not the first time Neville has aided the Patriots, however. He came from Oregon and actually coached the team during their home tournament earlier this year, which they won. Not a bad sign.

“We’ve had some trouble closing out games so hopefully with the new coach he’ll help us through those tough last points,” Roth said.

Although they take their work seriously and do strive to be the best, they also like to have some fun as well on the court, including some unusual rituals.

“We actually have a nice tradition called ‘Tank Wednesday’s,’ where everyone just wears a tank top to practice to show off,” Roth said.

Beginning Thursday, they will be looking to show off more than their muscles as they hope to take down some of the nations best.

To find out more about the club, click here to access their website or you can follow the team on Twitter, @MasonClubVball.

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