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Juniata MVB prepares to open 2010 season

(Posted January 13, 2010)

Juniata embarks on its 2010 campaign with 13 returning letterwinners, including five of the seven starters from the 2009 squad that reached the EIVA Tournament championship match and won the program's sixth Molten Division III championship.

"So many of our guys were on last year's team, and they know what it will take to get back there," said Juniata Head Coach Jeremy Price. "They know how hard you have to work in practice, they understand the level of play and level of consistency that you need - maybe unlike some of our teams in the past. The 2009 team was able to put together multiple matches in a row at a very high level, and the question will be whether the 2010 team will be able to do that."

First on the list of priorities for Price, the AVCA's Division III Men's Volleyball Coach of the Year, will be replacing four-time All-American Matt Werle at the setter position.

"Any time you lose a guy who sets you for four years, it's going to be different," said Price.

Heading into pre-season, no heir apparent has stepped forth to win the job outright. Sophomores Dan Kraft and John Almquist battled for the starting job throughout fall workouts, and that battle will continue through the pre-season. Neither saw any playing time at setter in 2009, so their game experience is limited to the four exhibition matches Juniata played against Canadian universities at the Can-Am Challenge of Champions tournament this past October in Edmonton, Alberta.

"Kraft is just too good an athlete to not have on the floor in some way," said Price. "He can set, he can also pass and hit outside. But Almquist is really pushing him with the setting."

In all likelihood, watch for the Eagles to use both Almquist and Kraft with a variety of different lineups until one of the two of them wins the job outright. Whoever emerges as Juniata's top setter will affect the starting lineup in other areas, making this a key decision for Price. Providing backup and pushing the two sophomores is freshman Rob Strauss, who showed great promise for a freshman during fall workouts.

Foremost among the other positions that will be affected by the outcome of the battle for the setter position will be at outside hitter.

Juniata returns the services of senior Zach Wanner, a Second team EIVA All-East performer last season who can play at either the outside hitter or opposite positions. Wanner was Juniata's offensive lynchpin last season, recording 4.22 kills per set. He also turned up 1.57 digs per set, and logged 53 total blocks with 22 service aces.

"Zach is going to be a right side or non-passing left side, depending on our lineup," said Price.

Junior Chris Vrooman started all 26 matches last season at outside hitter, and returns to the lineup in 2010. He recorded 2.51 kills per set in 2009, but was prone to playing at the extremes of his abilities; how he evens out those highs and lows may go a long way to determining what kind of season is in store for the Eagles.

"Chris is kind of the key to how good we're going to be," said Price. "He was very up-and-down last year, and we need a little more consistent performance from him. He can't hit .400 on the first night of the weekend, and hit .120 the second. I'd like him to hit .300 every night - that would make it a lot easier."

Dan Follett started 25 matches last season, and is projected to be in the starting lineup again in 2010. Follett averaged 1.46 kills per set in 2009, and will be pushed to improve those attacking numbers in his junior campaign.

"His passing and defense are already very solid," said Price.

Junior Brian Jaron has been used mostly as a serving specialist in the past, and will continue in that role to a certain extent in 2010. However he has made great strides in his passing and defensive skills, and is now a legitimate all-around outside hitting option. Newcomers David Schmidt and Zac Alexakos will provide some depth at the position, as they adjust to the speed of play in the EIVA.

On the right antenna, sophomore Charlie Gomez really improved his defense and his serve during the fall, to go with his already impressive abilities as an attacker. He provides an option for Price to go with a completely different lineup possibility. Fellow sophomore Matt Schmidt will receive significant playing time as a serving specialist.

The middle hitter slot is anchored by senior Evan Halteman, who earned AVCA Division III Second team All-America honors last season. A powerful hitter with good blocking instincts, Halteman was third on the team last season with 2.64 kills per set while hitting .452, and also tallied 73 total blocks (0.48 per set).

"Evan is going to be very good. Teams know about him, but I still think he's going to be able to score," said Price.

Middle hitter is the only other position on the floor where the Eagles lose a starter from last season's squad, with the departure of Dan Powers. Powers coupled high offensive numbers (2.90 kills per set and 0.97 blocks per set) with an insanely high hitting percentage (.496 overall, .465 versus EIVA opponents), making him difficult to replace.

The leading candidate for the vacancy is 6-8 sophomore Ben Wolff, while 6-8 freshman John Prout may find himself inserted into the lineup as blocking specialist. Junior Josh Mummert is battling Prout to be the top backup behind Halteman and Wolff, and has the edge over the freshman due to his extra year of experience with the team.

Additional contenders for playing time in the middle are freshmen Matt Blank and Goran Skinder; both are seen as future potential starters for the Eagles, so Price will be looking for opportunities to get them onto the court whenever possible.

Juniata returns one of the top liberos in the nation in senior Anthony Damiano. Passed over for Division III All-America recognition last season, Damiano received Second team All-East honors in the EIVA; he finished second in the conference last season in digs - trailing only Penn State's Dennis Del Valle â?" with 3.18 per set. Overall, Damiano averaged 3.29 digs per set last season â?" an average that steadily decreased as the year wore on, as opponents started hitting away from him.

"If Damiano can build on where he ended the season last year, I feel really good about where our serve receive's going to be as well as our team defense. He really anchors that for us," said Price.

Junior Casey Baum will serve as Juniata's primary reserve at libero, and may see some time on the floor as a defensive specialist. Freshman Cameron Andrew could be a future starter at this position for the Eagles, and will challenge Baum for the backup role.

"Most teams would love to have Casey Baum as their starting libero," said Price. "When we put him in as a defensive specialist, that will be like having two liberos on the floor and that's a pretty exciting combination."

Juniata will be tested early in its 2010 season. The Eagles open the campaign on January 18, hosting a revenge-minded Ohio State squad that Juniata upset on its home court last season. Juniata will then host Harvard six days later, before closing out the month with road matches against Penn State and Ohio State â?" meaning three of Juniata's first four matches will be against teams that have competed in the last two NCAA Men's Volleyball Championships.

The Eagles' non-conference slate will see Juniata face Rutgers-Newark, Loyola (Ill.) and Lewis University in home-and-home matches, as well as a single road match at Stevens Tech. Juniata will need to get past its two Division III rivals in the EIVA, Springfield College and NYU, to earn a trip to the 2010 Molten Division III Invitational will be hosted by Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., on April 16-17.

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Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.